More on the Use of Language in Rehearsal

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I know, I know, it’s a theme I keep coming back to. But along with the physical posture and gesture a conductor uses, their choice of words to address their ensemble makes up the much of the fabric of lived experience in that group. And even the most disciplined director who manages to minimise their verbal instructions needs to say things sometimes.

So, my usual tack through this theme is to encourage directors and coaches to give positive to-dos rather than name the problem. Don’t verbalise the diagnosis (‘delivery is a bit ploddy’), go straight to the intervention (‘sing with more flow’).

Keep doing this, it’s good advice.

But I have a further observation today, about the power of recognition. I have written before about how acknowledging the successful completion of a task not only motivates singers to keep trying but also helps them own their skill, as it gives them information about what constitutes success.

Recognition has more power than merely securing your gains, though. It can be the springboard to the next phase of growth. An apposite compliment can bring out a whole new level of assurance in a group. People who feel pleased with themselves sing with much greater resonance and expressive conviction than they do when they are concentrating on avoiding errors.

Correcting errors is a useful rehearsal activity of course. Errors distract from the enjoyment of the music. But an error-free performance is not the same as one that delights, and simply fixing things won’t lift the performance from correct to compelling.

One essential means to get this lift-off is to shift your interventions from a focus on technique to a focus on meaning. Technique is the Manager’s realm, but the closer you get towards performance, the more you need your Communicator to be running the show.

Don’t, however, underestimate the effectiveness of simply acknowledging the artistry that is already there. The people singing the music are there because they have a deep and intelligent love for it. When that is recognised, it gives them permission stop worrying so much about self-monitoring for correctness, and to let that implicit musicality show through.

Dale Carnegie pioneered a training method in public speaking that only ever offered compliments as feedback. His rationale was that the biggest obstacle most people faced was self-criticism, so telling them things to improve – even if the advice was useful and kindly delivered – would only compound their central problem. Focusing on what they were doing well already gave them space to flourish: when the learners could relax and enjoy the process a bit more, they’d embrace each other’s useful habits voluntarily and become the authors of their own growth.

I’m not (necessarily) saying we should give up correcting errors. There is something pleasing, musically, about hearing the right notes. But we can usefully reflect on the balance of utterances in rehearsal. How much of the time are we affirming our singers, appreciating their contributions, honouring their care and dedication to our shared art?

The starting-point for this post (which I now notice I haven’t actually articulated yet!) was an observation that people tend to perform up to or down to expectations. And the feedback we give singers in rehearsal is the primary source of information they have about what we expect of them. Complimenting singers on their artistic achievements isn’t being ‘soft’ on them, it’s making a fundamental statement about what kind of musician you believe them to be.

The scary power of being a director is that people believe what you say. Let’s use that power to help people become the musicians they want to be.

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