How Much Should We Show the Workings?
Going back through my notes from my weekend with the National Youth Choir’s Young Leaders weekend back in March, I was reminded of a good question asked by one of the participants. My presentation had encouraged two principles widely recognized as good practice, but Nat pointed out rather cannily that there was an implicit contradiction between them and asked how to manage it.
The first principle was the standard instruction to people taking choral rehearsals not to talk too much. There are myriad reasons for this, all sensible. There’s the singers’ motivation: they come to choir to sing, not to listen to you talk. There’s the matter of efficiency: talking is quite a low-grade way of communicating musical information – sometimes indispensable but best reserved for things you can’t do by demonstration or gesture. There’s the cognitive process of both director and singer – the less you talk, the more deeply you can get into the musical bits of your brain.
The second principle was about preparation, about how you get to know the music before taking it to rehearsal. This is not just about absorbing what goes on (notes, words, dynamics, tempo changes, yada yada), but also about why it’s like that – that is, about meaning. Where does the text come from? Why did the composer choose to set it? Who were the performers it was written for, and for what occasion? What is the piece’s expressive purpose? Why should we care about it?
So, once we’ve done all that research, Nat wanted to know, to what extent should we tell our singers about it, given that we’ve committed to not talk very much in rehearsal? This is an excellent question, and the specific answer in any one rehearsal will depend on the piece and on the singers. But there is a pretty good guiding principle here too.
The research should be sufficiently extensive that it would not actually be possible to tell the choir everything you know about within the course of rehearsals. If you find you could tell them everything and still have time to sing, you need to start asking more questions about the piece.
The corollary of this is that you are only ever going to be able to mention a subset of the information available about the piece, and so it becomes a matter of gauging what is the most useful information for the choir at their current stage of rehearsal. If they’re struggling with making sense of the text, then some information about its genesis and purpose may help them. If they haven’t intuitively grasped the intended mood, then telling them about the occasion it was written for may help.
Once you know it is impossible to say everything you know, the temptation to do so disappears. And if the choice of information to share is driven by the singers’ current needs, then you know it will be interesting and relevant to them. You can tell if you’ve made an apt choice, moreover, by listening to the choir. If what you’ve said helps them solve their problem, you chose correctly.