On Duetting

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After writing recently about the rehearsal device of the toggle-switch, on the grounds that it is something I mention frequently, so could usefully articulate in a single place to point back to, I realised that for all the times I have talked about duetting (29 times to date according to a search of this site), I have never done likewise for this most flexible and effective rehearsal method.

I am sure that this is partly because 'duetting' is a reasonably self-explanatory term for what it involves. You rehearse a piece two parts at a time, just like you'd have guessed. But that doesn't tell you why it's such a disproportionately useful device. It sounds as if it's going to be helpful rather than transformative.

But that's because it omits the key bit of information about method. The thing that upgrades duetting from a decent trouble-shooting technique to a profoundly powerful tool is that it is not the people who are singing who have the greatest opportunity to grow. The point about duetting is not primarily to help you sing your part along with each other part (valuable though that can be) but to give you the chance to listen to the other parts in combination and learn from them.

This is why feedback is important. The people on listening duty as each pair of parts sing together need to articulate what they hear, both to cement their own learning and to trigger each other to listen out for things next time. The goal is not to 'fix' details - there will be far more details available to be heard and articulated than the conscious brain can control all at once - but to practise discovering what is available to be perceived.

This can be observations about musical content/structure (where parts form consonances and dissonances, where they are close together or far apart, where they coordinate rhythmically or work independently); observations about technical matters of performance (synchronisation, balance, tone colour, vowel shape); or observations about expressive elements (melodic shaping, lyrical nuances, rhythmic zing). The observations can likewise be about things the singers are doing well or about things that need improving.

You will often find that people are slow to articulate what they heard at the start of the process, and take a bit of prompting to identify elements to comment about. Or that the first comments are quite generic, and need probing further: 'What, in particular, was beautiful?'

As you work through each pairing in turn (6 combinations in a 4-part texture), you find people noticing more and more. And sometimes it can feel that the performance is getting worse, as people find more and more picky details to comment on. But what is actually happening is that people are getting better at listening. Cued by each other's observations, their ears are able to focus in on musical and vocal nuances in increasing detail.

By the time you get to the end of the cycle of combinations, three things have happened:

  1. The singers are far more aware of how each part interacts with the others in the musical texture
  2. The singers are far more aware of the colour and character of each other's voices
  3. The singers have been bumped out of their comfort zones by the need both to attend in detail to what others are doing and the need to sing their parts without their habitual sonic blanket of the full texture

As a result, when the parts are put back together again, you find that not only does it sound much better, as everyone's intuitive brains 'fix' myriad picky little details that it would take months to deal with if you addressed them one at a time, but everyone enjoys the music more deeply as their sphere of attention has expanded to include so much more.

And, once opened up, that sphere of attention remains larger for everything else you sing that day. As a rehearsal method, it doesn't make you choose between sorting out this specific piece and developing skills; you get to do both at once.

Oh, and of course it's not just the singers who get better at listening through this exercise. This is a classic in the genre of rehearsal techniques that a director can present to their choir on the basis that it will help the choir (which it will), but which will also be great for developing the director.

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