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Humour in Rehearsals: Some Post-match Reflections

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VHUlogoOn Tuesday evening I ran a session on Humour in Rehearsals: A How-to Guide for the Barbershop Harmony Society’s Virtual Harmony University. It was substantially the same in concept as the one I did last year, though of course these sessions never run the same way twice, both because rhe presenter changes and grows over time and because different groups of participants produce different collective insights.

One of the things that is both a great strength and slightly weird about VHU as an experience is that a large proportion of the people who sign up to a class may not attend in real time, but might choose to watch the recording afterwards. This is jolly useful for its international credentials – whilst the participant based in Australia was in great shape at 9 am her time, I had every sympathy with the European attendees who chose not to stay up until 10 pm or later for what was the first class slot in the day’s schedule. (If they could find a way to time-shift the experience for presenters too I might be tempted to offer more classes!)

But the net result of course is that you have no idea what size of group to expect to be working with. As it happens, the eight or so we had in real time was a great sized group for discussions, with enough different people to get a variety of perspectives, but few enough that we could feel we got to know each other a bit in the process.

There was a point just before we started that I wondered if it was going to be just me, the room monitor and one live participant, which would have been a bit odd, both for him and for the people watching back later. One of the points of having classes, rather than just publishing print and video materials, is the opportunity to interact with multiple consciousnesses. As an instructor, I can prepare material, but I can’t generate the creative interaction of people from all over the world without the help of those actual people.

Fortunately, fate smiled upon us and the group of willing and interested human beings worked their magic to produce a learning experience that hopefully the rest of the group will enjoy vicariously. Particular shout-out to Cindy Hansen who got us onto the very useful distinction between rational and experiential objectives for rehearsal planning.

The other thing I have been reflecting on with regard to the medium we used is the impact virtual sessions have on the use of humour itself. When you’re having a discussion and having direct interchange of ideas, you can experience the creative frisson of generating ideas together. But when you are presenting material to a group whose mics are muted, you really have to trust your material.

I had included a number of gags as part of the presentation, partly because that’s the kind of thing I do as a matter of course, but in particular because it would have seemed odd not to given the subject matter. I also, probably, quipped about stuff spontaneously on the way through, again because that’s just my default mode of communication.

When you do that in person, of course, you get direct and immediate feedback about how well your style of humour and pacing of delivery is working with that particular group, so you can adjust on the fly. One of the points in my session is how powerful laughter (and, arguably even more so, not-laughter) is as a social signal. Not being able to hear real-time responses leaves you feeling like you’re flying blind.

There are other, less direct, social signals of course. You can see (some) people’s faces and body language, so you can tell if they’re generally engaged and positive about the experience, even if you can’t tell how any particular joke landed. It is quite an isolating experience; I was glad I had planned frequent breaks in my screen-shares to reconnect with the group and check I’d not lost them.

It gave me a whole new perspective on the ways that the zoom era impoverished experience, and was surprised I’d not really remarked on it at the time. In part I’m sure it was because zoom was infinitely less isolating than being stuck in lockdown without any company at all. And also because the way I’d gone about rehearsing and teaching had really foregrounded opportunities to interact with human beings, even if we couldn’t actually produce a realistic ensemble sound together. I was so busy trying to create interactive experiences I looked straight past the problems with less interactive modes using the medium.

You’d think, from a standing start, that one of the things online tuition can do well is replicate the kind delivery of a formal lecture or presentation, where attention is focused on the person leading the session and the material they have prepared. But the absence of audible laughter as a feedback mechanism really drew my attention to how much I navigate my in-person teaching by the response of the class participants. Not just in terms of how the jokes land (though that is very important information about how we’re all getting on), but by more subtle cues, both visual and audible.

One of the key points of my book on choral conducting was how the singers are co-authors of a conductor’s gestures. On a moment-to-moment basis ensemble and director are both constantly shaping what they do in response to the other. Comedic performance has a similar feel: the material and general approach to delivery is pre-planned but how it plays out in real time depends on the room.

It’s not that humour can’t work if you can’t hear the laughs. I quite often write things that I hope will raise a giggle and just trust that enough of them work not to be too annoying. It’s just that, wonderful as the technology we now have is, you can’t beat hanging out with real human beings for a fully satisfying interactional experience.

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