Learning

Remote Rehearsing for a Time of Social Distancing

From this week, the Telfordaires are moving to remote working for our weekly club night. We made this decision, first, for the obvious public health reasons. Well, I say obvious, but apparently not so very obvious to the UK government, who seem happy to ignore WHO recommendations. But even if our decision is over-cautious, the second reason still remains. [Edit: a few hours after I published this, the UK advice got more sensible. I think it was modelers at Imperial College rather than this post they were responding to though...]

The position that many groups have proposed of, ‘We’ll go ahead but if you feel at risk, stay away, while we continue with the nice things,’ seems to me rather unkind to those already disadvantaged by circumstance. We wanted to find a way for us all to have the nice things, including those chorus members with specific risk factors and/or family members to protect.

The two main reasons I have seen for continuing choir rehearsals in the face of COVID19 are, first, because cancellation devastates the incomes of freelance choral leaders, and, second, because a choir is such an important social/emotional support for its members. Moving to remote working rather than cancelling addresses both of these, and the second in particular has significantly influenced my thinking about quite how to approach this. (Hat-tip at this point to Elizabeth Davies for telling me to read Daniel Coyle's The Culture Code some time back. I've been thinking a lot about it recently for a different project, and it has also proven very useful for this one.)

Adventures in Aberdeenshire

Traditional warm-up pic: with added antlersTraditional warm-up pic: with added antlers

I spent the weekend up in snowy Aberdeenshire with the Granite City Chorus at their annual retreat. They have an effective structure for the event, which they hold at a hotel about 45 minutes out of the city where they’re based – close enough for convenience, but far enough to feel bracketed off from regular life. We had a full day for coaching on the Saturday, followed by a convivial evening, with a nice balance of planned activity (meal, quiz, singing) and unstructured social time. Sunday’s work finished with lunch, meaning everyone could find their way back to real life before they got too wiped out.

The thing that makes this structure so effective is the chance to work on things, then revisit them after a night’s sleep. It is during sleep that new skills and knowledge get transferred from short-term memory into longer-term storage, so on the second day you discover which bits made that journey safely, and which bits fell out en route. There’ll always be some of each, but you can’t tell in advance which will be which. It also gives you the opportunity at the end of the first day to discuss together what people would like to spend time on in the morning. As a coach, this means you go in better prepared, and as a singer you go in primed for what’s coming next.

On Challenge Level, Teamwork and Locus of Control

Hello, I'm back! I've not yet delivered the second paper I needed to prepare this autumn (coming up this weekend), but I've finished writing it, and so I have space to start blogging again. It has been interesting to focus on some longer-form writing again for a change, but I'm looking forward to getting back to processing learning experiences as they happen. My notebooks all feel like they have indigestion!

I have been having a lot of interesting conversations in recent weeks about locus of control, and specifically how to help choral singers experience a sense of autonomy, rather than just being acted upon by the conductor’s authority. Some of these conversations were ones I started as part of my keynote presentation at the Hands-On Choral Symposium in Aveiro at the start of November, but others have just popped up in the course of making music with others.

On Priming Effects

Priming effects are the name psychologists give the phenomenon whereby an idea or a behaviour comes much more readily to mind if you’ve had some kind of trigger or reminder shortly before encountering it. The experiments that investigated it often make it seem like a weird form of suggestibility: people walking more slowly after being primed with words that remind them of old age, for instance, or students doing better or worse in tests depending on whether they’ve been primed with stereotypes that evoke intelligence or academic weakness.

Daniel Kahneman explains priming as a way of tapping into our System 1, associative mode of thought, helping the speedy, intuitive part of our brains to access a whole web of connotations, rather than painstakingly working through ideas one at a time. Whether this works positively, producing nuanced, holistic insights, or negatively, making us leap to conclusions based on stereotypes, varies from context to context.

Soapbox: On the Value of Downtime in Rehearsal

soapboxThis post is inspired by a recent conversation about what different choral groups do by way of a tea break (or not) during an evening rehearsal. I have framed my post as one where I climb up on my platform for being opinionated, but I should let you know that the dialogue it emerges from was anything but contentious. Just a bunch of people saying, ‘We rehearse from this time to that time, and this is what we do by way of a break’.

We all found it helpful and interesting to see the range of options available. I particularly liked the one where they had drinks available for the half hour they had the hall before rehearsal started so that those who wanted to come early could socialise. It seemed a good way of balancing the needs of those who value a cuppa and chat and the task-focused shy people who would rather be singing.

Practice Gadgets as Feedback Tools

The term ‘practice gadget’ is one coined by Daniel Coyle to refer to tactics people use to selectively increase the challenge of what they are working on. The archetypal example would be the way that the popular game of futsal trained up a generation of Brazilian football players, documented in his first book. Working on a smaller scale than soccer, and using a ball with significantly less bounce, futsal makes players work harder at ball-handling and team interaction, leading to a level of virtuosity that the larger, outdoor version of the game rarely fosters.

There is another dimension to the practice gadgets though, not just the amplification of challenge: they provide a feedback-rich experience. The physical interface with the activity talks back to you with a constant stream of information about how you’re getting on.

Myelinating with Mo

The recent LABBS Harmony College brought lots of interesting resonances with the blog post I had scheduled to come out the day after I got home from it. This is not entirely a coincidence of course – at the time I was writing about practice processes and shunting between local and global, I was also refining my notes for a session on rehearsal techniques that focused on Daniel Coyle’s Talent Code, and its accounts of how we acquire skills.

But our guest educator Mo Field also gave us a lot to enrich that understanding. Her coaching under glass session with Soundhouse and Avalon quartets on Saturday evening was a masterclass in myelination. She took very little time before she started to delve deep, paring down to two singers each on a single note and spending a long time there before building up to four singers and three or notes at a go. Then when she pulled the camera back to take in wider stretches of music, the singers were able to continue accessing the new paths they had gone down as they had spent long enough there to get them at least partly established.

Thinking Faces

I recently reread Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code to refresh myself before teaching a class that drew on it at LABBS Harmony College. The great thing about rereading things is that you can suddenly spot all kinds of cross-references with things you have read since – connections which, by definition, weren’t available to you the first time you read it.

One of the points that leapt out at me is Coyle’s description of people engaged in deep practice – the behaviours that lead to myelination and thus the development of skill. They display a characteristic facial expression, a kind of intent squint that makes them all look rather like Clint Eastwood. So of course I went to refresh my memory of his face and laughed out loud at the results of a google image search – my screen reminded me of a class or a choir when I’ve just asked them to do something they’ve not done before.

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