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Practice Gadgets as Feedback Tools

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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.

I have been thinking about this dimension of practice gadgetry recently in a number of different contexts. When working with singers with a tendency to over-articulate, for instance, I have taken to giving them a tictac to hold between their back teeth as they sing. This isn’t something you’d want to do all the time – it can risk stiffness in the jaw (as well as dribbling!) – but it gives top-quality information about when people have been in the habit of opening their mouths more than they need to.

In a similar vein, Donny Rose remarked at last year’s BABS Directors Academy that using a metronome ‘tells you when you are lying’.

It’s in working with conductors that I seem to be developing my biggest collection of feedback gadgets, though. This is because it is so hard to self-monitor while you conduct – it is such a musically- and interactionally-rich experience that it is really hard to take any attention away from the needs of the music and the singers to attend to your own technique.

Setting the world up so that you get targeted information about the bits of technique you are working on only when you need it is therefore really helpful. Regular readers will have met many of the following before, but sometimes it’s handy to gather them together in one place, to think about the principles they share:

  • A tennis ball in the armpit. This keeps you from clamping your arm to your side too much, but tells you immediately if you are working too much from the shoulder or raising your arm too high, as you literally drop the ball
  • A beer mat on each shoulder. This is the equivalent of the Victorian deportment manual’s trick of balancing a book on your head: it enforces a calm, poised posture. Actually, you probably want a bit more freedom of movement when you conduct than this allows, but learning to keep your beer mats in place is a great corrective to over-directing.
  • Conduct holding a bottle of water. I learned this one from Jim Henry, who used it to encourage a more grounded gesture by adding weight. To increase the stakes, you can take the lid off, so that unduly bouncy movements give the conductor a shower. I confess to showing off technical poise by demonstrating a 4-pattern with a glass of red wine over a white table-cloth.
  • Conduct standing on one leg. This will tell you any time your gestures pull your body out of balance.
  • Have the singers mirror every time you do a mannerism you are trying to shed. The classic one (enacted on me by Bill Rashleigh many years ago) is bobbing the knees, but it will also serve to identify other forms of extraneous movement.
  • Have the chorus stop singing when the conductor mouths the words. It is the nuclear option; it is very effective. Alternatively, you can just hold something in your mouth (a straw, a pencil), so that even if the physical sensation doesn’t remind you to still your lips, you’ll know when you’ve forgotten because you drop it. But I still like the nuclear option for this, for the way it makes the singers complicit in the process.

Of course, the basic relationship between conductor and choir is already that of feedback loop: the sound coming back to you is full of information about how you’re doing and what the music needs. But for practice purposes, you sometimes want to isolate a specific element for attention, and that’s when you need a feedback gadget.

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