Hedonic Adaptation: The Sequel

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So, when I wrote about this last December I got as far as articulating the following question:

How do we give our singers enough opportunities for repetition to embed the skills that need automating without dulling their imaginative response to the music?

I have subsequently marshalled some of the thoughts that started to teem in my brain in response. There are several strategies you can take, each of which spawns its own set of rehearsal tactics.

  • You can circle in on the task. This is a repertoire-focused approach, and involves rehearsing the same bit of music with a variety of different exercises – the repetition gives the singers time to live with and absorb the music, while calling on different learning styles and focusing on different aspects of vocal craft gives variety. So you can sing the passage without words, whisper the text, clap the rhythm, sing through the passage omitting everything but the notes in the tonic chord, sing the passage in an Italian accent, and so on. All that is required from the director is endless creativity to think of new ways to circle in on what needs learning.
  • You can transfer the skill. This is the converse of the previous one, being skills-focused and varying the repertoire to which it is attached. This turns drill into problem-solving: how do we apply this newly acquired skill to music other than that in which we learned it?
  • You can escalate the task. This is the musical equivalent of the memory game ‘my granny went to market’. Each repetition ask for the singers to add something to what they’re doing, so that they never have the chance to switch off. So, you may be repeating an exercise several times in a warm-up in order the gradually increase the vocal range in use – you can use each repetition to refine how they’re singing. ‘More smoothly this time…and with a little more warmth…now add a smile…show me how the phrase should be shaped…keep the eyes alight…’
  • You can pre-determine the end-point. You get a very different quality of attention from the promise that ‘we’re going to repeat this until we get it right’ compared to ‘we’re going to do this three times with the music, then we’re going to sing it from memory’. This both wins you the psychological advantages of the end effect and makes the repetition into something valuable by virtue of its scarcity.

There’s potentially a multi-level process of variation going on here, you’ll notice. Each rehearsal tactic varies the basic drill; each strategy can spawn multiple different tactics to vary rehearsal activity; and we can vary which strategies we use. In all cases, we can tell if we’re offering too little or too much variety by observing our singers. If they’re looking confused and/or anxious, we’re changing things too fast; if they’re looking comfortable but slightly vacant, we’ve lost the edge of their attention. When their eyes shine and their voices ring true, we’ve struck the right balance.

Hi Liz

I think the question you've articulated here is the single, most fundamental consideration when leading a choir!!

I'd like to share a couple of things that I do which are related to your circling in and escalation.

I use the idea of focus of attention when circling in. You repeat the same song in the same way, but ask the singers to focus their attention on different aspects of singing the song, e.g. breathing, articulation, hearing the other harmonies, relaxing the body, dynamics, etc.

I also use the idea of finding how many ways you can sing a song in the 'wrong' way. After that, you're only left with the 'right' ways! For example, sing it in a different style (country and western, reggae, opera); change the time signature (3/4 to 4/4); sing it really, really fast (or slow); sing it as if you were the worst choir in the world; sing it like you're drunk; etc. etc.

From the Front of the Choir

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