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Slump Week: How to recognise it, and how to cope with it.

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Attention span graphAttention span graphSome years ago I wrote about this graph of attention spans in the context of managing interest in a musical form. But the use I put it to more routinely is teaching people about planning rehearsals: understanding when you are likely to get the best and worst quality attention over the course of a rehearsal allows you to plan your activities to make the best use of the cognitive resources available.

What I find interesting about this graph is that you get about the same shape over both small and large timescales. Whether you are looking at a 50-minute lesson, a 2-hour rehearsal, a whole-day workshop or a term’s concert preparation, you get your best work done soon after the start, followed by a gradual decline in attention quality, finishing with the lift of the end effect where everything suddenly perks up again.

Today I’m thinking about the larger-scale pattern, and the way it can result in what I have come to think of as ‘slump week’. When I used to teach in 11-week semesters these were readily predictable: in week 8 everyone’s brains would fall out. Skills which had been developing nicely for two months would suddenly desert the students, leaving them feeling baffled and embarrassed as they struggled to do things they had done easily the week before.

Once I wised up to this of course, I learned to plan for it. I knew it wasn’t the best week to introduce something new and complex, but that the act of grappling with things would do some good consolidation of skills already acquired. Most importantly, I learned to remain cheerful and patient through the struggle. Sometimes this involved breaking things down into simpler units, and building back up; always it involved frequent use of the sentence, ‘It’s okay, we can have another go, it will get better’.

What is interesting when you’re working with less clearly-defined time frames is that you still get these slump weeks, but they’re not so readily predictable because they’re not built into the way you define your activities in the same way. If your choral activities are shaped by a clear season of rehearsal leading up to a culminating concert, you’ll be able to plan for this, but if you are a repertoire choir whose activities are ongoing rather than seasonal, it will be other patterns that structure the collective experience of time.

In the UK, school terms can have quite a strong shaping effect, even for people who aren’t directly involved in education, as they are bounded by public holidays that do apply to everyone. Autumn and Spring terms in particular have clearly shared cultural boundaries (just after the August bank holiday to Christmas; New Year to Easter) that organise shared experience into coherently-felt spans of time.

And it’s interesting to observe that, with Easter a moveable feast, Slump Week will appear early or later in the year in tandem with it. It is easy to be surprised by Slump Week in the years when Easter comes early (ask me how I know that).

But these wider patterns have a weaker organising effect on experience than the structures within which your rehearsals are explicitly organised. So you may get other experiential spans of time – preparation for an event, introduction of new projects – overlaid on them and inflecting them. (My head is full of the image of those experiments about wave-interference in school physics lessons.) So your Slump Weeks may not be directly predictable.

There are certain tell-tale features that define a Slump Week, and from which you can recognise it even if you hadn’t predicted it. A week when a lot of people who usually turn up on time come in slightly late is a classic sign – and one which has an immediate impact on the confidence of those who are there early. If you hear the words ‘Where is everyone?’ five minutes before the start of your rehearsal, you can expect to hear the need for reassurance in the vocal tone throughout the evening.

Another tell-tale sign is how people handle warm-up exercises designed to promote cognitive alertness: you’ll get slower responses than usual, and mistakes at a simpler level. These exercises are all the more important in the weeks when people don’t find them easy, but you need to give them a bit more time, and adjust the level to where people can achieve things before ramping back up to what they’d usually manage.

So long as you keep adjusting like this throughout the rehearsal, you’ll get a lot done, and you’ll make gains that are deeper than on an easy evening, because they are more hard won. It may feel like you are just getting back to square one, but you are thereby building foundations that will underpin everything you subsequently achieve. The key thing is to remain patient, and to mitigate rather than amplify any frustration the singers may feel with themselves.

And, most importantly, if you hear the sound hanging slightly off the underneath of the pitch, where it doesn’t usually, do not draw attention to it. Refresh the pitch as often as you need to, but don’t try and do anything targeted to correct this. A slightly droopy tonal centre is the archetypal symptom of choral uncertainty, and pointing it out is the surest way to encourage your singers to feel bad about themselves and lose all the gains you had so carefully made. Just keep your ears open – when the pitch comes back to true that is your signal that confidence is returning.

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