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On Singing Solo Safely

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On Saturday I led a webinar for the Association of British Choral Directors on Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code and its implications for choral rehearsals, during which we considered how they apply both in traditional face-to-face rehearsals, and in online sessions. I always find the combined wisdom and experience of a collection of choral directors a highly enriching environment, and never fail to come out with more ideas to reflect on than I went in with.

On this occasion, there were a number of related conversations about how the exigencies of remote rehearsing put people on the line for singing by themselves. On the whole, people join choirs to sing with other people, and for many, losing the envelope of sound around them has not only taken away a fundamental aural/visceral pleasure, but has stripped away their safety net.

Now, whilst pushing people out of their comfort zones is vital for learning (and indeed Coyle has written about this in his earlier work on developing advanced skill), you need to build a safe space in which to do that, or else you risk people heading straight from their comfort zones into the panic zone without finding the learning zone en route.

One participant described the experience of singing in a choir whose director was in the habit of asking individual singers to demonstrate during rehearsal, and how that meant she spent the entire session on tenterhooks, braced against the possibility she might be picked on next. This provides an ideal case study to consider what constitutes safety, or lack of it.

There are a number of things that make this experience of singing alone scary rather than safe. First, and most significant, is not knowing when it might be your turn, and what you might be asked to sing when it comes. If we weren’t aware of this before, 2020 has reminded us all that nothing creates anxiety as effectively as uncertainty. I asked the participant who told us about this whether she might ask the director to let people know in advance that he was going to ask them, so they could prepare and feel more ready for it. That would restore some sense of control to the singers, as well as let them relax for all the bits they weren’t going to be asked to demonstrate.

She said sadly that he wasn’t very approachable, which brings us onto the second dimension of impaired safety: it’s very top-down. Conductors have a lot of power, and using that to hold everyone in a state of anxious anticipation exacerbates the gradient of power inherent in the relationship. If you’re going to do something that involves individuals being ‘picked on’, then having each person who’s had a turn tag the next one to go takes some of that power out of the conductor’s hands and redistributes it. Doing it this way, the person who puts you on the spot is asking you to do nothing they have not done themselves, which makes it a much more mutual experience.

The third aspect that made this feel unsafe is the context. They were already in an unfamiliar, and therefore unsettling, situation having had to switch to online rehearsals. Adding a new form of rehearsal protocol that increased their sense of exposure would be inherently more difficult in this context than introducing it in familiar circumstances would have been. (And of course it only happened because the new circumstances meant the familiar ways of working weren’t available.)

One option that quite a lot of choirs have taken is not actually to ask people to sing alone, but have all the singing on mute, either along to recordings, or along to the director singing and/or playing an accompaniment. This deals with the safety issue, but has the downside that singers don’t get the pleasure of being sung to by each other, which is a warming and joyful experience.

But our case study on how to increase jeopardy has shown by contrast some of the things we can do to make our online rehearsals a safe space to sing alone.

I love pair-work for all kinds of educational reasons, but in this context it also comes into its own for building safety. There is a sense of both privacy and mutuality in two people taking it in turns to sing on-mic. Each makes mistakes, and receives support and encouragement from the other. Both recognise the risks involved and build each other up to take them. It is a rewarding and friendly experience, as it adds copious safety enhancements to balance the jeopardy of singing alone.

Doing this regularly, in different pairings, makes the transition from the unfamiliar to the familiar, and offers opportunities to experience this mutual support with different members of the choir. From here, escalating to small groups of different parts to enjoy duetting with each other becomes a much more comfortable step.

It helps in all of these cases that the conductor isn’t present. Taking that power differential out of the equation both removes the sense of being under constant scrutiny, and signals trust: the director considers the music safe in your hands.

The feedback culture in a choir is also key to making these kinds of activities safe. People are all too ready to beat themselves up, and probably won’t notice the things they do well. When they are exposed, it is vital that we celebrate the beauty and individuality of each voice we hear. We have the opportunity to learn so much about each other, and are singers will only feel free to share the best of themselves if they feel they are being listened to by ears that care about what they have to express.

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