Getting the Artistry in Early

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I’ve written before about the pitfalls of ‘note-bashing’, but I thought it might be useful to think of the same issue from a positive perspective: the value of working on artistry from the get-go. This is something I learned from my first conducting teacher, Alan Rump, and like many of the useful things he said, it was some years after I left university before I noticed how useful it really was.

The rationale for the idea of ‘first learning the notes, and then putting in the interpretation’ is that - in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy -cognitive needs are more fundamental than aesthetic ones. So people won’t have any attention to spare for artistic questions if they’re concerned about what they should be singing. This is true as far as it goes, but doesn’t mean we need abandon all hope of expressive development until the notes are in – just that we need to be sensitive to the note-learning needs as we work on expression, and vice versa.

If you think about it, the first thing a choir usually needs to do just after they’ve sung through a passage for the first time is to do it again. The readers will want to aggregate what’s just passed into their eyes, through their brains and out of their mouths into a concept of musical shape rather than just a series of notes. As will the ear singers, though their processing loop has been in through the ear instead of the eye.

So the most useful thing you can do is give them the chance to satisfy this cognitive need. But there’s no reason why you can’t add an expressive request at the same time: ‘Let’s sing that again, and can you give a little extra colour to the word ‘heart-ache’ please?’ And for this minimal extra cognitive load, you get a disproportionately responsive musical result.

After two or three times through, you can hear which bits of the music are being picked up with no problem, and which bits need a little extra help. The trick here is to demonstrate the passage where the singers are struggling with notes or rhythm, but to make the point of the demonstration an expressive one. You can then rehearse that patch a few times until you can hear the technical level is sorted out (as it will be, with that focused attention), but the singers don’t feel stupid for needing extra help with the notes. Instead they feel clever for producing such a musical result at that early stage of learning.

I think a few things are going on here to make an early artistry focus so effective. First, any choir at whatever level has a range of speeds of learning available, and it’s important to give the faster learners something interesting to do while the slower learners figure things out. We rely a lot in choral situations on our fast learners to support the learning of the less confident, and it’s important to keep them interested both for their own sake and for the quality of support they offer.

But I think investing music with meaning right from the start also makes it easier to learn. Moments that surprise the singers as they’re learning are usually there with an expressive purpose that will in turn surprise a listener. So by identifying what that moment is doing communicatively, by making sense of the ‘difficult’ patch, you render it easier to sing.

And these moments often then become the expressive backbone of the whole performance. Something that gets labelled as ‘tricky’ early on is rarely ever sung with full confidence, but the first bits of a piece to be sung with genuine feeling are forever performed with a sense of purpose and ownership.

Agree with all of this. And furthermore, if it turns out you don't quite have enough rehearsal time for everything (and you never do), my experience is that the audience will love an expressive performance with a few technical flaws but will hate a performance which is technically perfect but boring. They can hear that on the radio all day long.

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