Coming Out of the Wilderness

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Our second full-chorus rehearsal: this week it didn't rain!Our second full-chorus rehearsal: this week it didn't rain!

Whilst choirs in England are still out in the cold (we are only allowed to rehearse outside as yet), we are at last able to emerge from the Zoom Wilderness. The Telfordaires have now had two full-chorus rehearsals on our regular chorus night, and are rediscovering how to do this ‘singing all together’ lark. This weekend I’m participating in two events at which the return to live rehearsal is a key theme, and this post comes out of my preparation for the experience-sharing I’ll be doing at them.

So, for background, whilst The Telfordaires have had nearly 15 months of weekly rehearsals on Zoom, we have also had a considerable quantity of live rehearsing in small groups since last summer, in 1-hour ‘weekend supplement’ sessions. We got in 14 sessions between August and December (with a month off for November’s lockdown) and were able to restart in quintets + MD in April. So, we’ve had a bit of a run-up to the full-chorus live rehearsals, and have thus been through the process of resumption a number of times.

I wrote last autumn about our experiences coming back after the first 5-month hiatus, and discovering that the voices had become rather disconnected after all that singing in isolation in little boxes. The work we did on zoom in response to that – focusing much more on posture and support, imaginatively opening up to sing as if in larger spaces – made some difference when we came back after our second 4-month hiatus, but only some. People still remarked when we restarted in April that they really didn’t feel vocally match fit.

The other dimension to emerge this year where we’ll need to rebuild is cognitive stamina. We noticed this to an extent in our weekend supplement sessions, but it has become even more apparent in our 2-hour rehearsals. The brains aren’t so quick to pick things up by ear, the memories are intermittent, concentration flags sooner than it used to. This is a description of me as much as the singers – by the end of the session I am shattered and ravenous, it’s really making me dig deep!

Unpicking these cognitive struggles, I think there are multiple elements to them:

  • Lockdown brain fog. This has been documented beyond the choral sphere, and is in some ways an adaptive response to the restrictions of lived experience. But it necessarily makes complex tasks more challenging. Not everyone has been severely afflicted with this (though some have), but I suspect that few have been totally untouched. Fortunately, the cure for it is to ease back into more stimulating and interactive experiences.
  • Sheet music dependence. I like to encourage people to engage with notation, but working in a genre that performs from memory, we also need to use our own brains as storage devices for music. However many memory-type exercises you do on zoom (random spotlight – play up to the camera!), it has been easy for people to keep the music to hand off-camera, and there’s been no real urgency or indeed much opportunity to put memory to the test.
  • Overstimulation. Do you remember how one of the main challenges in remote rehearsing was how to get any level of intensity of neural firing? Turns out that putting everyone together to sing at the same time solves that problem. Even for those of us who have been at the weekend supplement sessions, the amount of simultaneous input to process is so much higher, you can feel your brain fizzing with it. All that sound! All those people! Coordinating all these motor actions in the context of all that sound and all those people, and for twice as long as we’ve been used to!

This last point is why our cognitive difficulties can’t dampen the joy of being able to sing together again. It’s making us work hard, but that work is pleasurable, and the sense of stretching ourselves is deeply satisfying. And then you hear things getting better, offering both musical reward and personal achievement – well that’s what we all want from a rehearsal, and what we’ve had so little opportunity to experience out in the wilderness.

The key point at this stage of our journey is not to mind when we don’t immediately achieve what we used to do readily, but to accept the challenge of rebuilding. ‘Let’s do that again; it will be better,’ is always a useful phrase in rehearsal, and now is a good time to over-use it.

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