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On Keeping a Rehearsal Moving

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I recently found myself giving some advice about running a rehearsal to the effect that it is more important to move onto the next activity at the scheduled time than it is to complete the task in hand. And as I drew breath to say why I would recommend this, I realised that it's exactly the kind of thing to blog about: simple on the surface, but more interesting the longer you think about it.

So to start with the more simple and obvious advantages to moving on:

  • You get regular opportunities to refresh people's attention with a new activity or repertoire focus.
  • You deliver the balanced set of activities you intended to deliver when you wrote your schedule.
  • You don't have to skimp, rush or omit activities later scheduled for the later parts of the session. This is particularly pertinent for the last section of the rehearsal where the singers are most likely to get the benefit from the end effect.
  • You personally get the benefit of the end effect as you head towards the close of each item on your schedule.
  • As a result, you activate high-quality background processing over the full range of activities you have given quality attention to in your plan.

There are also some specific disadvantages to staying with a task beyond its scheduled time, quite apart from the simple loss of the advantages:

  • You are more likely to find yourself flogging a dead horse - if your chosen rehearsal tactic hasn't achieved your aim within the time you allotted for it, you need to stop and rethink your approach.
  • You get diminishing returns on an activity as novelty wears off.
  • Your rehearsals rapidly become subject to Parkinson's Law, since the lack of hard deadlines within the overall session gives space for people to take longer and longer to achieve things.

Underneath these observations there are some rather more subtle thoughts.

First, there is the nature of the 'task'. In many ways, the work of the choral rehearsal is never done. Whatever you achieve in a particular session, you can't just leave it there as a static achievement and expect to find it just as it was next time you go back to it. Musical skills and musical memories are complex, dynamic things, subject both to growth and decay. Things placed in short-term memory need reinforcement to shift into longer-term memory; other things half-learned one day will emerge more fully-formed after a night's sleep.

So, the very notion of 'completing the task' is somewhat problematic. However much or little we achieve today, we will need to revisit in the future. Or, if the performance is upon us, we will have to make the best of what we have achieved to date. 'Readiness' is always a relative term in the performance arts.

This in turn leads to thinking about how we define our tasks in our rehearsal planning. If we are habitually running out of time to achieve our aims, that is feedback on the planning process. We are clearly attempting too much, or underestimating the time our singers need to learn things, or choosing inefficient methods. Over time, our predictions of what we can achieve within a certain time with a certain group of singers should become more accurate. Respecting our own schedules helps us refine our scheduling skills.

The other thought is about why we would want to deliver a balanced rehearsal, without skimping or omitting bits. Partly it's about the quality of attention/prevention of weariness at the time, but it's also about activating the singers' background processing. When you wake up the morning after a rehearsal with music from last night running through your head, it's because the rehearsal has got the consciously inaccessible, ruminant part of your brain on the case. You prime the learning in the rehearsal room, but the consolidation goes on in between times.

It is therefore much more effective for learning to give quality attention to different areas within the rehearsal than to over-run on two and just touch on the other two. People's background processing function latches on to what their brain has noticed being treated as important. Rushing or skipping over something tells your brain that it doesn't need to worry its pretty little head about that, so what little you do achieve will get dumped out of short-term memory to make room for things have received proper attention. (I'm aware the brain imagery is getting strangely recursive there. I could edit that, but I find strangely recursive things strangely entertaining, so I'm not going to.)

I quite like the idea that the purpose of a rehearsal is to commandeer as much of every singer's brain as possible for the benefit of the choir. I have yet actually to write about the relationship between ignition and charisma, but this way of thinking about rehearsal is why I am planning to.

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