A More Helpful Post About Learning Tracks

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Having been all grumpy at you again on the subject of teach tracks the other day, I thought it might be nice to make some positive suggestions about ways you can use them. The following three ideas are intended to preserve all the benefits that people identify whenever I go off on one of my grumps, whilst avoiding or at least mitigating the downsides I get grumpy about. These remarks are primarily aimed at the chorus director, but they will have some relevance also for individual singers, and indeed people for who make the tracks.

Do Your Prep Before Issuing the Tracks

If you put in the groundwork on the music before you let the singers loose on the tracks, you give yourself the opportunity to identify what the challenges are and put in the support your singers need before they spend three weeks practising all the obvious mistakes. If you wait to start your own prep until the singers start theirs, you won’t know what kind of messes they are likely to be getting themselves into until they are already well into those messes. Get ahead of them, and you can make sure they have the key skills they’ll for the song before they have to apply them.

Yes, this takes a bit of organisation, but your future self will thank you. You will save so much rehearsal time unlearning mistakes it’s untrue.

Fast Music Needs Slow Tracks

For any music that is speedy or intricate, issue tracks at half tempo - either as well as or instead of full-speed ones. Or possibly first, so people spend time with the slow version before speeding up once they’re familiar with the detail. The thing is, if the point of tracks is to help people ‘learn the dots’, then they at least need the chance to hear what those dots are.

Quite apart from my ideological harumphing about how tracks are anti-educational (at least in some of the ways they are used), my biggest practical objection is the way they chivvy people into fast practice before they’ve had the chance to process and live with the detail. Slow practice is where skills are built. Do more slow practice in rehearsal, and enable your singers to practise slowly in their own time.

Use Tracks *As Well As*, not Instead of the Sheet Music

If you encourage people to use tracks along with the sheet music, then they will start to build the connection between ear and eye that underpins music literacy. The dots will stop looking scary, and will start to become a useful tool with which to build a mental map of the music. The more that people use the score as a memory aid, the easier it becomes, over time, to slide from the identity of ‘non-reader’ to that of ‘can read a bit’ - which is the start of the road to functional literacy. But if people only ever use the tracks without looking at the music, then the music just stays a frightening terra incognita and people will cling more firmly to their identities as non-readers, thinking ‘There Be Dragons’.

Of course, you have little control over what people do in their own time. You can tell people to use the music at home, but if they just stick on their ipod and get on with the ironing, there’s not much you can do about that. But you can do a lot about how people relate with the music in rehearsal. If your instructions routinely require people to look at the paper in order to follow them, it will become a normal thing to do. Instructions such as ‘Start at Chorus 2, bar 57’ can be followed by everyone, and function to embed a concept of musical form as part of the whole group’s practical musical consciousness. Expecting people - as literate choirs traditionally have - to bring a pencil and mark in breath points or other expressive markings helps the singers to take ownership of the detail - the act of writing aids memory as much as having the written record for reference in private practice.

The culture, facilitated by the use of learning tracks, of coming off the copies early in the rehearsal process as a goal in its own right is one of those red herrings of excellence. Yes, performing from memory is a Good Thing for all kinds of artistic reasons. Yes, people doing their homework in the early stages of learning a song is a Good Thing too. But abandoning the written song as early as possible is counter-productive. Both the performance and the performers will develop further faster by keeping it in play throughout the rehearsal process.

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