Socially Distanced Singing, and Other Practice Gadgets

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Socially-distanced rehearsingSocially-distanced rehearsing

One of the responses to my recent post On Singing Solo Safely talked about how the rehearsal protocols we need for live rehearsing also affect the sense of safety singers experience in rehearsal:

Singing in masks and socially distanced is another example where the safety of the wall of sound disappears and singers can often only hear themselves.

To which I’d add singing outside and in smaller groups as other things that dilute the sonic envelope around us. Indeed, of all of these, singing in masks is the least of our problems; they may feel like they symbolically gag us, but their effects on the music are minimal compared to the effects of the inverse-square law of sound.

One of the mantras of the covid era has been ‘you wouldn’t choose to do it this way, but it’s better than not doing it at all’. But this comment brought into focus for me the fact that, yes, actually would and indeed have chosen to do some of these things back in our days of normal live rehearsing.

Empirical studies of choral stacking have consistently found that spacing singers out improves the sound both for listeners and for the singers themselves. Our requirements for social distancing probably add more space than would provide an optimum self-to-other ratio (especially in outdoor scenarios), but it might be closer to that optimum than we might normally choose when squishing people in together too closely.

Singing outside is not only something that choirs often find themselves doing in performance situations, but it is also a well-established rehearsal method for learning to cope with difficult acoustics. If you always rehearse in a lively space, it can be very unnerving if you come to a performance and find that the sound disappears and you feel like you’re singing alone. Rehearsing outside gives you the opportunity to adapt to these kinds of conditions, and thus the confidence that you have the skills and experience to cope with them in a performance condition.

(Tangentially, some of the sense of ‘only hearing yourself’ may often arise from the performance situation itself rather than the acoustics: tunnel hearing is a known adrenaline response. The outside rehearsal helps both in providing the skills to cope with it, and, by increasing your confidence, also moderates the adrenal kick.)

Likewise, singing in smaller groups than usual is great rehearsal tool for getting people to raise their game. People have to step up and take more individual responsibility for creating the sound, rather than just relaxing back into it. The choral tone when you put two semi-choruses who have sung separately back together is far richer than the composite you had before the separation.

These methods for stretching a choir to develop specific skills are the kind of thing that Daniel Coyle refers to as ‘practice gadgets’. They’re like a snooker player deciding to play every shot with a rest for a week, or a pianist following CPE Bach’s advice and playing familiar pieces in the dark. They make things harder in particular dimensions so that, under normal circumstances, the skills are greater than required to achieve the goal.

To be sure, we probably wouldn’t choose to do all of these practice gadgets at once in a regular rehearsal. Educationally, you’d want to stretch in one dimension at a time to focus the skill development in that particular area.

But, given that we need these various measures all at once for risk mitigation purposes, we may as well embrace them as part of the process. Enhanced listening, good resonance and legato, and the ability to project rather than push the voice are not only essential to make outdoor, distanced, small-group singing work effectively, they will also be of great value when we can rehearse indoors all together again. It helps us cope with the current difficult rehearsal protocols when we know that our future selves will reap benefits that have been specifically generated by those protocols.

Yes. Cloud; silver lining; adversity; invention; (add appropriate proverb content)

For my chorus the Zoom thing has made us do things that we’d never normally have done too.

Because we haven’t been able to sing together our sessions now include a lot of time devoted to each singer doing their bit individually with others listening critically or singing along on mute.

Although initially somewhat unnerving, it seems to have become a part of ‘what we do’ now, and most agree the learning outcomes have been pretty good. It’s been an incentive to put the work in ahead of time, and it’s helped to show up issues which have been able to be dealt with on an individual basis. True it’s required a lot of encouragement and mutual support but that seems to have come naturally, perhaps as a result of the shared exposure that we’ve all been subject to.

Since lockdown started we’ve learned about 5 or 6 songs in this way from scratch which I don’t think would have happened otherwise. Ok, a lot of group honing left to do when this is over, but this route to development has been a bonus resulting from the forced change of circumstances which we’ve had to face.

I would add that we’ve also been able to record individuals and, with a bit of genius work from a technical individual, piece together group performances of the songs. The outcomes have sometimes been pretty dire, but those who have taken the trouble to have a go at this, have come to appreciate many tricky details of synchronisation and tuning and, I’m sure, improved as a consequence.

Yes, the mutual support is definitely something to cherish, as well as the musical outcomes it facilitates.

I think your point about sometimes having dire results is also a useful one. One of the things adult learners find hard is accepting imperfections, and learning not to be hard on ourselves and each other when getting the results we want doesn't come at first attempt is a very useful dimension to a choir's resilience.

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