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Soapbox: On the Value of Downtime in Rehearsal

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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.

But still, I do have an opinion about breaks. You sometimes find, particularly in the culture of ambitious groups, a belief that break time is wasted time and should be kept to a minimum or even cut all together. There is implicit in this view (though rarely articulated in so many words) a judgemental attitude that those people who would like a break are lazy, small-time people who lack the stamina, work-ethic and/or vision to power on through for a whole evening.

Now, quite apart from the fact that even artistically adventurous people deserve to have their social needs met, this harsh task-master approach is in my view counter-productive.

Downtime in rehearsal is not merely an interruption of/distraction from the main purpose of the evening, but actively contributes towards it. If you are running an effective, focused rehearsal, people will after a while start to get cognitively and physically tired. The opportunity to stop, move about a bit, and change activity refreshes tired minds and loosens up bodies that may have started to seize up from being in one place too long. Hydration, caffeine and sugar, if available, also aid this recharging process (it is why they are called ‘refreshments’).

And so much useful stuff goes on during the breaks. Committee members confer about operational questions. Singers come and ask the director questions that they didn’t want to interrupt the main rehearsal for, but which will help them become more effective choir members. I particularly enjoy the sight of two or three singers huddling in a micro-sectional after I have stopped the rehearsal for a break.

Simply spending time together without a directly task-focused agenda also has value. Not just for the individuals, who probably joined a choir in order to make friends, but for the group as a whole. The tea-break is rich in what Daniel Coyle refers to as ‘belonging cues’ – eye contact, frequent laughter, equal access to each other’s company. These are the behaviours that build trust and cohesion, and which the disciplines of choral rehearsal don’t always give space for.

People who want to rehearse right through the break time may point to the logistical difficulties of getting drinks made, served, consumed and packed away in a timely fashion. This is a fair point, and if you don’t have the amenity of a kindly husband who comes along every week to prepare your refreshments (as a chorus I visited recently had), then people will understand. Those who really can’t cope without a hot drink will bring their own. The change of activity a break offers is still valuable whatever the catering arrangements.

But if the problem is starting the second part of the rehearsal promptly, that is a separate question from the usefulness of the break. Like starting on time on arrival, this is a discipline that can be developed, and once ingrained it brings a real sense of momentum purpose to your time together.

(And this is the moment I know why I framed this as a Soapbox post. I’m about to say something ouchy.)

It’s not fair for a conductor to deal with their own failure to instill a choir culture of punctuality by taking away their singers’ opportunity to spend time together. And even if it were, the lift to attention quality for the rest of the night that they forego by cutting the break is a far greater loss than whatever they can achieve with that extra rehearsal time would add.

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