On Choral ‘Discipline’

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Choral discipline encompasses many things, from remembering pencils, to learning notes at home, to watching the conductor closely. But the archetypal sign of a choir’s level of discipline is how much talking goes on within the ranks during rehearsal.

This dimension of discipline is often seen as having a moral dimension – as, indeed, the word ‘discipline’ implies. A hub-bub of chatting is seen as rather slovenly, the choral equivalent of frayed cuffs and dandruff. (Alternatively, sitting up straight and paying attention is seen as overly prim, a form choral OCD.) This discourse takes us back to school days, evoking a traditionalist’s model of education, with desks in rows and all children silent and on task.

The fact is, though, that when a choir stops singing and immediately dissolves into huddles of earnest conversation, they actually are on task most of the time. People want to sort their notes out, or, if theirs are fine, they want to sort somebody else’s out. The chattage and talkery is predominantly about the singing itself, a running commentary intended and experienced as part of the rehearsal process of getting better at the music.

So, sometimes the most useful thing a director can do is let the singers get on with it, if they’re clearly on the case and sorting stuff out between themselves.

But only sometimes. My observation is that there are compelling musical reasons to limit the opportunity for conversation within the rehearsal process that are nothing to do with a moralistic conception of discipline, but simply about the effectiveness of the learning process. The reasons are as follows:

  1. Chatting during rehearsal is an inefficient use of the time as it imposes the pace of the slowest person to resolve their issues on the rest of the choir. If you are talking, somebody else is waiting for you to stop talking so that they can start singing.
  2. Chatting during rehearsal keeps bumping you out of the musical bit of your brain into the verbal bit. Have you ever noticed how after extended periods of singing, you lose the need to say very much? Those are the times when you have got deeply into the musical part of your brain, and where the deepest, most effective rehearsal can happen. And you may also recall how centred and peaceful you feel then. It’s a state that’s desirable in its own right, quite apart from its impact on the rehearsal.
  3. Chatting during rehearsal wastes your short-term musical memory. The brain’s capacity to hold full, detailed records of musical experiences is amazing, but these memories dissipate very quickly. A rehearsal that stops only long enough to articulate the next instruction and gets everybody singing again while the music is still resonating round everyone’s heads really gets the benefit of this capacity.

Of course, the point about developing a choir culture in which the singers talk less is to give them the opportunity to sing more. If the director uses the silence to talk more, they are abusing the choir’s efforts at discipline, and deserves all the resentment that a moralistic conception of discipline can inspire. The comment above that:

If you are talking, somebody else is waiting for your to stop talking so that they can start singing

applies to directors as much as it does to the members of their choir.

Excellent post Liz!

Sometimes I set up a complex warm up exercise that's all about focus, listening, etc. and AS SOON AS IT'S OVER everyone starts gigglling and chatting hence destroying the creative atmosphere that's been created! In those instances it seems to be more about embarrassment, pleasure at having achieved something, fear of being in a space with no language, etc. etc.

You're absolutely right about there being plenty of musical rather than moralistic reasons for limiting chit chat. BUT ... and here's the $64,000 question ... how does one maintain that 'discipline' without being too authorative and destroying the creative atmosphere?

From the Front of the Choir

Thank you for a compelling post.

Sometimes, the chorus is much more able to "fix" things amongst themselves in a section or small groups. This seems to be the case when everyone is first learning a piece. Once they are more comfortable with a piece, that is the time when the longer periods of "singing" and less talking occur.
I've learned to rely on my singers' collective expertise in those early rehearsals with a piece, making time in the rehearsal for the sections to "talk amongst themselves" to address issues that bother them as a section. It often is the case that a section may not wish to bring their particular issues up in the general rehearsal, but love having "time out" to do so as a section.
During rehearsal, their job 70/30 section/group cohesiveness. My job is 30/70 section/group cohesiveness. By the time we get to performance, we are united with 100% group cohesiveness.

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