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How to Hear Hippos

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Scott Dorsey, over on ChoralNet, has a nice blog post about the usefulness of having a fresh pair of ears in your rehearsal room. I liked it not only because he promotes the kinds of services I offer (!) but also because it got me thinking about breadth and depth of perception, and how we balance these out.

Scott uses a delightful metaphor coined by a postgraduate class-mate of 'flaming pink hippos' as representing the glaring and obvious problems that you gradually lose the ability to see the closer you get to your work. You get so focused on paying deep attention to one aspect, that you totally fail to notice much more fundamental issues developing elsewhere.

For instance, I once worked with a choir whose director had the most amazing ear for matched (or mismatched) vowels. He would stop and correct details that I just would not have perceived - though my own perception improved significantly by observing the differences his corrections made. But his depth of focus on this issue had left him failing to notice that one could make a far bigger difference to the sound at this point in the choir's development by working on vocal support, freedom and resonance.

His work wasn't wasted in the long term, of course - once the choir started producing a richer, fuller sound, control over vowel shape gave them significant help in managing all the extra resonance. But they really weren't in a position to get the benefit of this work until they had dealt with the flaming pink hippo of basic vocal production.

Now, depth of perception is a useful thing. You will notice that people who are unfamiliar with your choir's stylistic world are always more impressed than connoisseurs. Established members hear imperfections that pass new members by completely. So, learning to hear in detail is important.

But, it is almost inevitable that this will come at the cost of what Scott calls 'objectivity', though I would probably prefer to call 'perspective'. Unless, of course, we make a conscious effort to refresh our ears.

Scott's recommended method of bringing in a clinician or respected colleague to listen and feed back on what they hear is one useful method. You can also get useful feedback from your performances - events like festivals have a structured approach to this, but the responses of friends and family are also really valuable. It is not always the case that family members are overly gentle in their criticisms, I should add! In all these cases, you are using other people's ears to reveal things that are too familiar to you to be perceptible.

The other way you can get a sense of perspective is to listen to other ensembles, both your immediate peers (who will give you perspective on skills levels) and ensembles working in different genres (which will reveal what you take for granted in your own performance tradition). This opens up your own ears to possibilities that your imagination can then apply to your own choir. What do they do well that we don't? What do we do well, that they don't?

And that last point is important. Sometimes a flaming pink hippo is a good thing. We are apt to get so used to what our choirs do well as a matter of course that we forget to be grateful, we forget to celebrate. But if we want to build on our strengths, it is useful to be able to remember what those strengths are.

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