More Skype Coaching
Since my post back in February about working with the quartet Cleftomania in Portugal using Skype, I have continued to have regular sessions with them - about once a fortnight up until the Spanish Association of Barbershop Singers convention in April, and once a month since then. As the initial shock to the system of the new medium has receded, and we have slipped into a sense of routine, I have started to notice some rather more subtle idiosyncrasies of the experience and their effect on what we do and how we do it.
For instance, our session last week was the first in which we had a glaring disparity of climate. The quartet were in very light summer clothes, and clearly feeling very warm in the Portuguese summer. Back in the UK, we were still in the cold, wet weather that has dominated our spring (except for that one glorious week in May!). You don't notice how you match pace and style of movement with the people you're with in the context of temperature until you find yourselves in such radically different environments. I expect they found seeing me swathed in layers of warm clothing as subliminally incongruous as I found seeing them having to fan themselves.
I'm also having to find work-arounds for standard parts of my coaching technique that are disrupted by the occasional dissociation of sound and video. I routinely use gesture in conjunction with vocal demonstration to communicate ideas - but the effectiveness of this relies upon the stroke of the gesture arriving with the part of the demonstration that it refers to. Delay it by a second and it loses its meaning - or, worse, confuses the meaning.
We got by with a combination of verbal explanation followed by vocal demonstration, but losing the conceptual input of gesture did make the process less efficient. This has led me to start giving the quartet gestures to do while they sing, to place the coordination of musical and gestural ideas literally in their hands. This is a technique I would usually use more with larger choral groups than small ensembles: as well as aiding learning, it helps me as a coach diagnose how well individuals in a large group have grasped an idea or technique. But with the more subtle forms of interpersonal coordination disrupted, this kind of 'louder' coaching tactic is one way to bridge the gap.
The temporal glitches and loss of detail also slows the coaching process down. Not only do we have to be more explicit in verbal communication of both instructions and questions in the absence of meaningful gesture, but there is simply that extra bit of delay in each direction. And this has the greatest impact in the final third of a session, where I would typically be ramping up the intensity of the coaching. As Dan Coyle has shown, it is the frequent and repeated firing of neurons that seriously builds skill, so a coaching style that involves frequent repetitions of an action with the most efficient possible refinements from the coach in between will have the greatest impact. With the current limitations of technology, it is simply not possible to achieve the same level of intensity as you can face-to-face.
Of course, I don't suppose anyone would expect that. And the technology does of course have the huge advantage that it allows a regime of regular sessions of an hour which is normally only possible with very local travel. So let's not be ungrateful.
There is also one area where seeing the whole quartet on a small screen actually makes things easier than having them life-size in front of you. This is where you're dealing with the visual unit: the focus of gaze, interaction between the singers, extent and congruity of bodily movement. With real people in front of you, you can't actually see the whole ensemble at once without moving a goodly distance away - further away than you'd usually coach from for sure, and not always even possible in a typical quartet rehearsal space.
But on a small screen, you can encompass the whole group at a glance, and you see very clearly the difference that small changes to stagecraft make to the visual ensemble. And you also have the advantage that Skype gives you a real-time image of how you are looking to the people you're talking (or indeed singing) to, so the quartet also gets to witness the effects of the changes. This wasn't something I was even aware of as being a difficulty in normal coaching until I discovered the specific way that Skype makes it easier!