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The Key to Remote Rehearsing: Opportunities to Listen

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One of the things that teaching, and in particular preparing to teach, does for you is to bring implicit knowledge into conversant awareness. I mentioned in my previous post reflecting on the session I ran for LABBS on Principles for Remote Rehearsing that two observations rose to the top in preparing and presenting it. I talked about the first there; it is now time to consider the second.

I have for many years used a quick and dirty rubric for describing the effects of rehearsal pacing on singer experience. As I discuss in the blog post that introduces it, there are nuances beneath the surface that lead to richer refinements of rehearsal technique, but it remains a really useful starting point for analysis.

A similar kind of rubric is starting to emerge for me that articulates quality of experience for singers in online rehearsing. The key question it asks is:

For what proportion of the rehearsal does each singer have the opportunity to hear other people’s voices in real time?

This question develops from two main points. The first is the obvious one that the remote rehearsal strips out the primary pleasure that attracts people to singing in groups: the sound and feel of others’ voices around yours. The second is Daniel Coyle’s observation that social connectedness is the key component of successful groups.

These two principles have driven my own approach to remote rehearsing since March. Every week my chorus experiences small group interactions in at least two, usually three different combinations, and we have devised, adapted, and stolen all kinds of ideas for interactive musicking that can survive in the online environment.

I initially thought of these as two separate things: social connection and musical engagement. But in preparing for the training session, I found myself bringing together observations from what I’ve learned from other directors’ and singers’ accounts of their online activities with reflections on my own experiences to note how much the two interact.

From my own experience: the few times I’ve used singing along to tracks as the basis for full-chorus work rather than duetting-coaching, I’ve come out of rehearsal feeling less lifted than when I’ve been working directly with the sounds of people’s voices. Or the weeks when I’ve not pulled some people out of section/other group-work for vocal coaching (because I didn’t want anyone to miss the experiences planned in parallel), I’ve missed it. There’s also that palpable lift to the group when different people lead or facilitate a segment: the chance to imprint on a variety of people during a session adds to the richness of the experience.

And then: the emotional impact when I heard the first draft of a mix of our section leaders singing our new song during a recording project. It was imperfect in many ways, but the warmth it brought to my heart of hearing these familiar voices was wonderful. That was the moment when I really grasped how integral the sound of someone’s voice is to your sense of connection with them.

Other insights came from conversations with other directors. It seemed to me that those people who were running more interactive rehearsals were the ones who seemed to be reporting higher levels of continuing attendance. Not just that, but they seemed less likely to be struggling with feeling lonely and unsupported in their role. It turns out that building social connection into your approach helps the emotional health of director as well as singers.

So, my central question emerged as a specific, quantifiable measure of interactivity. Any time you are getting to hear someone’s voice in real time, you are in a state of social connectedness with them. This is why choir is pleasurable in the first place, and why, in a normal rehearsal, listening to the director witter on at length is a less rich and pleasurable experience than singing with 25 other people all at once.

Note that my question doesn’t actually differentiate between speaking voices and singing voices, though. You get social connectedness from either, and in a world where simultaneity of sung voices is limited, the natural advantage that choirs have in the normal run of things is likewise limited. I note that some groups who report that they’re spending a lot of their rehearsal night in social catch-up are in pretty good shape in terms of attendance and cheerfulness.

But still, it is a blessing to be sung to, and the chance to hear another’s voice in song does wonders for the spirits, so I still tend to think in terms of ‘chorus rehearsal’ as much as ‘club night’. Besides, musicking gives us something to do while we hang out together; it’s what we have in common.

There are other nuances to be teased out of my question. It is phrased in terms of the amount of time spent with the chance to hear others. But there’s also the question of how many others you get to hear. These two dimensions, of time and number, give a terrain on which to map a rehearsal experience:

Mapping rehearsal experience in terms of opportunities to hear others' voicesMapping rehearsal experience in terms of opportunities to hear others' voices

In the top left corner, an evening spent with an efficient director who has learned not to speak for long, singing along on mute to recordings, actually gives a choir very little human contact. In the bottom right, in which you have spent most of the time with the opportunity to hear others, and plenty of them, you feel the most connected. This is what normal rehearsals do without trying, and what takes conscious planning to facilitate in an online setting.

The other two corners give interesting hybrid experiences. In the top right, an evening spent in a group of 3 or 4 singers is richly interactional, but loses connection with the wider group. Whereas the bottom left may describe lively chattage and talkery as people arrive and during the break, but a generally top-down approach to the rehearsal itself.

It is interesting to reflect that, when we consider the role of interaction in feeling socially connected, we often talk about it in terms of being heard, that is, we focus on the person emitting the sound and their need for the communication to be accepted. And of course, for someone to be heard, there need to be people doing the listening.

But one of the things that our Zoom experiences have highlighted is that it is very hard to know whether you are being listened to, or if you are just speaking into the void. So, whilst I could have cast the rubric in terms of the proportion of the time any individual singer has the opportunity to be heard, and by how many, that wouldn’t have reflected what has turned out to be important to me as well. As director, I get to hold the floor as much as I like, and my chorus seem flatteringly inclined to pay attention to what I say. But I’m happier the nights when I’ve spent more time hearing more from them.

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