Contextual versus Absolute Instructions

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I have been thinking recently about the instructions that teachers and coaches give to refine what their students are doing, and how often you see what are essentially corrective instructions getting muddled up with how-to-do-things instructions.

Commonly remarked-upon examples include:

  • Tuning of major 3rds: sometimes (well, quite often), people sing major 3rds a bit flat, and so are asked to raise them a bit to bring them in tune. This gets translated into a mistaken belief that major 3rds need to be sung really high, whereas in fact the justly tuned 3rd is slightly lower than the equal tempered one.
  • Posture for singing: some people tend to slump a bit forward and collapse the chest as a matter of habit in their posture, and so are asked to raise their chests for a good singing posture. This gets translated into a general instruction to ‘raise the chest’ which, for the people who weren’t particularly slumped can result in their distorting their posture, narrowing the back and adding all kinds of extra bits of unnecessary tension.

A more esoteric, but rather striking version of the same syndrome appeared in a talk I heard about the editing of early string quartets when I was a student. The speaker (whose name currently escapes me) made the point that it is tempting to regard markings by players on the original parts as indications as to original performance practice: they wanted this bit quieter, or that bit to slow down. But our own experience tells us that a lot of our own markings are reminders to avoid our own habitual mistakes. The editor’s task then becomes to decide whether a particular marking indicates that the tempo should be slower than previously, or that the player should stop his irritating habit of speeding up there.

For another performance practice example: it has been noted that Poulenc performed passages of his own music marked ‘senza rubato’ with what to modern ears sounds like considerable rhythmic freedom. His notion of ‘strict’ was formed in the context of what all the other players of his era were doing.

There are cautionary tales here for both how we give instructions to our students, and how we should interpret the instructions from our own mentors. And of course, the two are related, since the foundation of our own teaching arises from our own experience as learners.

So, this requires a degree of reflection and self-awareness in how we look back on how we were taught. Did our teachers constantly tell us to bring the bass out more, for example, because they saw that as essential to the music, or because we were perpetually under-playing it? Did they ask for looseness of wrist as a foundational element of technique, or simple to undo excessive tension we were carrying? If we don’t make these distinctions, we introduce distortions into the pedagogical tradition of which we form a part.

It can also be useful to be clear in the way we give instructions when we are being absolute, and when contextual. If we teach well, the people we help today will be tomorrow’s teachers and coaches, so it would be useful if the memories they take with them make this distinction clear.

Some things are rightly absolutes: ‘Never play through pain’ comes to mind as a useful one from my own youth.

Other things are contextual: ‘You can never have too much consonant’ is probably true in some sonic environments, but becomes much less so when you sing in a dry acoustic. This instruction would be much more usefully framed, even in a really ringy room, as: ‘The text always needs to be intelligible,’ which in turn may lead to, ‘The consonants still need more energy,’ on a particular occasion.

And for those of us working with groups of musicians, the other dimension we need to pay attention to is contextualising instructions so it is clear who needs to act on them. Absolutes we can throw at a whole ensemble and they will work. Correctives need to be deployed with more precision.

Now, some groups are sensitive about singling out individuals (though I find they get past this quite quickly once they experience it in the spirit of helping with a task rather than being ‘picked on’). So, there are a number of tactics one can employ here:

  • If somebody is doing it right, then picking on them as a good exemplar is very useful. They will have a clear validation that they don’t need to adjust, and everyone else gets a useful model
  • Visit the extremes. Once everyone has explored the range of possibilities, not only do they have better conscious control over that aspect of their craft (under the Inner Game principle of Will), but they take it less personally when you ask one person to move one way along a continuum and another to move the other
  • Wherever possible, work the correction within the musical flow. This shifts the experience from being one of being told what to do, to being an experience of making music together.

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