On When, and How Much, to Prioritise

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I was part of an online conversation recently that started with the following question:

Ok, so singing - what one craft skill would you teach and work on, that would give a chorus a really good improvement?

It got lots of useful replies, both about what different directors were finding useful with their groups, and about the process of prioritising according to the needs of the people you're working with.

But as I read, I found myself wondering more about the premise of the question. To what extent is it useful to focus on a single skill in developing a choral group?

There are lots of reasons why it may be a good idea. It gives a clear focus to rehearsals, bringing a sense of a distinct project. This in turn gives the singers the chance to consciously grasp the concept and its associated techniques as skills they can apply at will. This results in a clear sense of short-medium term achievement: here's the thing we used not to be able to do that we can now.

Moreover, singing is an integrated activity, and work in one area often delivers results in others. If you work on legato, you are likely also to get returns in resonance and support. Consistency of vowel placement can likewise help continuity of breath. A strategically chosen project-focus may offer improvements significantly beyond its ostensible area.

So, in all these senses, it is a good question to ask.

On the other hand, singing is an integrated activity, and there are dangers in focusing in on one single aspect of it. Treated in isolation, any aspect of choral craft risks becoming an end in itself rather than the means to an end. There are two dimensions to this danger, technical and perceptual.

The technical danger is about how people develop habits in the use of the self. If you learn, say, a particular vowel placement alongside a certain set of habits of posture and breathing, you will have developed your control of that dimension of singing in the context of that bodily set-up. If you then need to make changes to how you breathe, it is then quite likely that you lose control of your first technique, because you have removed the set of physical habits it was built on.

The problem here is both about the subjective experience of living inside the instrument you use to make music, and also one of managing attention. Breaking things down into their separate parts is always a central part of learning a skill, but you need a way to synthesise these different elements into a single concept of what you're doing if you're not to end up in a Manager's nightmare, so busy juggling different elements of technique that you forget how the music goes.

The perceptual problem is that you get so focused on dimension you are developing that you lose your awareness of the overall sound. Your project becomes your primary measure of quality, even beyond the point where it is no longer the aspect of your performance that needs the most work. You lose the capacity to hear flaming pink hippos.

(I have fond memories of a piano student who came into her first lesson after the summer break saying she wanted me to help her with her dynamics. She played to me, and my first response was: 'Hey, your dynamics are good! I can hear how much you've been working on them. Let's look at the use of arm weight.')

There are also opportunity costs when you become overly focused. Different people learn in different ways, and a set of images and exercises that work brilliantly for you may not make sense to some of your singers. A change of focus can be a great way to turn on a lightbulb for someone who had been struggling.

So, I'm not saying that we shouldn't ask the question about which single aspect of our craft is the most important to work on (with these singers, at this point in their development, with these other commitments looming). But I am saying that we shouldn't let the invigorating concentration of attention on an immediate priority distract us from its role in the overall picture.

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