How do we conceptualise the rehearsal process?

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‘Rehearsing a choir is like pushing a man up a greasy pole.’
John Bertalot

If you listen to how people talk about rehearsing, you’ll notice that there are a number of common metaphors that lurk behind what they say. Sometimes they are stated explicitly, but more often it’s just that the language people use comes from a particular domain. It’s useful to stop and analyse this language every so often, since the kinds of underlying metaphors we use to think about rehearsing affects how we go about it. Different ways of conceptualising the process bring different opportunities and limitations. Here are a few examples – I’d be interested to hear about others that you have spotted or use yourself.

  1. Rehearsal as Motor maintenance

    You don’t often hear people call their choir a rusty mini metro, but they often use the language of mechanics to talk about how they work with them. Our repertoire of rehearsal tactics, techniques and exercises is the toolkit, and our job is to pick the right tool for the job to fix the problem. You get better at leading an ensemble by acquiring more tools.

    This is a very practical, instrumental language. It is an empowering language because it promises the director access to the means by which to solve their problems. It also encourages diagnostic, analytical thinking, responsive to the choir’s needs. At the same time, though, it is an artistically limited way of thinking about rehearsing. It sees improvement as a process of removing defects, but doesn’t give much room to develop vision or emotional connection with the music.

  2. Rehearsal as fire-fighting

    This metaphor sees the director as surrounded by lots of fires that they have to put out, and their job is to deal with them in order of their size. Big fires must be put out immediately before they get any bigger; little ones come later.

    This is a great language for prioritising. If you ever have choir members pointing out some small defect that they want you to put right, when there are major issues that really need dealing with first, this is the metaphor for you.

    It is also a dynamic language. It gives a sense of urgency to the need to address vocal or musical or performance issues before they escalate further. It captures that sense of living on the edge, and of doing something that matters, that brings energy and focus to a rehearsal.

    But it is something of an embattled language. The director’s task is cast as one of reacting to disaster, rather than setting their own agenda. And success is seen in terms of subduing, or conquering the choir’s faults, rather than supporting or encouraging their strengths. The goal it promises at the end is relief rather than achievement.

  3. Rehearsal as sculpting

    I like this metaphor because it is essentially artistic. It is about realising a vision, producing something beautiful from raw materials. Two particular features of this metaphor are especially valuable.

    First is the model of the process it gives: developing a rough-cut version initially that you progressively hone and refine. It places the overall shape and vision of the outcome at the heart of the activity throughout the entire process. Using this metaphor, you won’t be tempted into ‘putting in the interpretation’ later after a phase of 'note-bashing', you’ll be thinking about the expressive purpose of the music right from the earliest stages of learning how it goes.

    Second is the importance of the material in shaping the realisation of the vision. Rodin would have a clear sense of what he wanted to produce, but he wouldn’t know until he was working with the marble exactly how that might play out with this particular piece of stone: where are the veins, how does the colour vary? Likewise, the physical sound of that choir’s voices is a material medium that shapes the way a director’s internal conception of a piece is brought to life.

Rehearsal as spring cleaning (or maybe polishing)

We're going out somewhere posh, or maybe having people around to our house. Time to get out the glad rags, ornaments, jewellery, posh plates. Maybe some of this stuff has been gathering dust at the back of the cupboard, or your favourite frock needs letting out (ouch!), or your coat has moth holes in it and need darning, or the family silver needs polishing. Perhaps it's all seen better days, but with a bit of love and attention, some spit and polish, it will soon be as good as new and ready to face the world.

Rehearsal as a secret hiding place
Deep in the bowels of the earth where nobody can find us, not even our nearest and dearest. Here we can air our innermost thoughts and feelings. Here we can be vulnerable and show our inadequacies. Here we can make all the mistakes we can, knowing that what is left at the end of it all is all the right ways of doing things.

Thanks for those, Chris - they're both really vivid metaphors and both will set a very clear framework and feel for the rehearsals they shape.

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