On Managing Persistent Mistakes: Part 2 – Cure

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In my last past, I reflected on ways to support singers in learning their music accurately, to save everyone the frustration of having to unlearn and relearn, which is much harder. But of course, as you are working with human beings, you will still encounter times where people have learned something wrong. And, like the scenario that prompted these posts, the problem is often not getting people to correct their errors, but of keeping them corrected.

I have been thinking about this from two perspectives. The first is how to interrupt the behaviour pattern that includes the mistake(s). A persistent error is persistent because it has been practised, and if you want to replace that pattern with something else, you need to prevent them strengthening that neural pathway any more. In Alexander Technique terms, this is called Inhibition.

The simplest way to bring this into the choral rehearsal is to ask someone who is making a habitual error to stop singing for that specific moment when running the music at tempo, either in rehearsal or private practice. This does several things: first, it prevents them further reinforcing the mistake; second it helps them develop a measure of conscious control over things they had been running on autopilot; and third it gives them space to hear other people around them singing that bit correctly. As a useful side-effect, it means that if a performance comes up before they have fully mastered the correct version, they are able to participate without making audible errors.

The second aspect is how to build the new pattern securely enough that it can replace the original one. What is needed here are activities that develop depth of engagement with the music. As our case study demonstrated, it is often not enough merely to learn the replacement version with your section, as when you get back into the full texture, the stimulus of the full texture will trigger the original, wrong version instead.

So, we need to do things that will produce a more active learning mode. Duetting is always a good answer. In this case, it specifically mediates between the context of your single line and the whole texture, making you explore not only the relationship between your part and all the others, but also their relationship with each other. Doing this with everyone is always a valuable rehearsal activity, but it would also be valuable as a small-group exercise to help individuals in remedial work.

Activities that make you change elements of what you’re singing also promote active control over your craft, rather than just singing along with your past self. Monotone the passage to isolate rhythm, or sing the passage to a neutral syllable to isolate pitch. Getting more creative: sing every word with a t as its initial consonant; miss out every syllable with an ‘o’ vowel in it; sing only when you have a note in the tonic chord; sing only the first beat in the bar.

These are all fun things to do in rehearsal, and exercise the Inner Game principle of Will. If you can do several silly things on purpose, you have the control to do something correct on purpose, and by being silly will have reduced the anxiety that was getting in the way of doing it correctly. Clearly, if you are used to these kinds of games, then applying them to error-correction will be much easier, so don’t wait until things go wrong to start playing!

In the bigger picture, all these approaches are about building musicianship. The persistent error is a symptom of a certain narrowness of awareness and understanding, of clinging to your part as you have learned it as the centre of your singing experience. Developing the capacity to hear and understand more of what is going on around you, and the flexibility to update your concept of the music in response both to feedback and what you are hearing takes time, but is inherently pleasurable and brings a depth and richness to the experience for singers and listeners alike. That it also makes persistent errors less of a problem is almost just a useful benefit in this wider context.

To make errors is normal; indeed, if nobody is making mistakes, nobody is learning. But the goal is not to keep making the same old mistakes, but to aspire to new, more interesting, more creative mistakes, for that way artistry lies.

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