Maslow for Choirs: Cognitive Needs

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cognitiveSixth post in a series that starts here

I first noticed cognitive needs when I was rehearsing a choir and as soon as we finished singing a passage, all the singers dived into little huddles of intense conversation. I drew breath to restore order to the proceedings, and then realised that, at that moment, there was nothing I could say that would matter to them more than their current endeavour of checking notes with each other.

That's where I learned that sometimes the most efficient learning activity in a rehearsal is to let people get on with what they are doing. If the singers are focused and intent on solving their own problems, interrupting them will just slow things down.

(Do I need to put in a paragraph full of caveats here in anticipation of all your 'yes, buts'? Of course not every time singers talk in rehearsal is an example of them dealing with cognitive needs - this is a specific case of when it is wise to make an exception to general rehearsal discipline, not an invitation to a free-for-all. And of course if they spend too long on it you need to intervene to get them sorted out so you can get the rehearsal back on track to your own agenda. But still, the point remains. Singers feel the need to know what they are doing and will help themselves to attention to that end, and let's help rather than hinder that process.)

Cognitive needs are the first level of the higher, complex needs, and there are two ways in which they manifest. The first is this urgent and immediate need for clarity. It is not always quite so blatant as my opening example (though asking questions is another clear give-away!) - sometimes the veneer of rehearsal discipline remains intact and your singers just frown at you or peer at the music. In these cases, it is as well to flush out what it is they are puzzling over and deal with it, because that will dominate their attention until they find their answer. It is the cognitive equivalent of being bursting for the loo.

The second way cognitive needs manifest is more subtle, but arguably more important than the acute mode for the long-term health and development of the choir. The chronic form of unmet cognitive needs is where your rehearsal strategies aren't stretching the singers enough, or are only stretching them in limited dimensions. Whereas dealing with the lower needs is largely a matter of ensuring adequacy - removing physical or emotional obstacles so progress can resume - the higher needs reflect our motivation to grow.

A lot of rehearsal methods function at a basic level of concrete operations. Whether in the context of having a lot of music to learn in a short time (I have heard the British cathedral tradition described, for instance, as 'very high-level damage control'), or of working with amateur singers who are assumed to need very basic instruction, much rehearsal doesn't seem to go beyond note-bashing. Even when 'expression' is addressed, it is all too often handled by way of more concrete instructions: get louder here, this phrase pianissimo.

This critique is clearly also going to be relevant to our next category, aesthetic needs, but treating singers like automata who merely follow instructions is problematic at a cognitive level too. The director isn't the only person in the room with a brain, and the singers will be happier and more engaged if they get to use theirs too.

So, how do you tell if your singers have a chronic need for more cognitive stimulation? Obviously, a bit of self-reflection on the director's part about their rehearsal tactics will be useful here, but you also need to recognise patterns of behaviour that manifest when brains are going under-used.

I think the biggest give-away is a tendency to get stuck. You know when there are bits that the choir should be able to grasp perfectly well, but are taking longer to learn than you'd expect? And so you keep hammering away at it, and they kind of get it, but struggle again the following week? That's a sign of addressing cognitive needs at too shallow a level - just focussing on notes and words - leaving the deeper intellectual and emotional responses to music untouched.

Along with this sluggish learning response, you also see a certain lack of energy in the body language and lowered gazes from the singers. If you find yourself having to chivvy your singers into looking at you, it may be that you are mismanaging the intimacy equilibrium of the room, or it could be that they're actually a bit bored. Probably not bored enough to self-diagnose as such (which would see action in response - most likely leaving to find a different choir), but just enough to take the edge off the experience and keep them out of flow.

The danger is of course when this happens is that you simplify, slow things down, make them more basic, misdiagnosing the slowness of learning as lack of understanding rather than lack of engagement. Or it may be that people are genuinely struggling with that bit, and would appreciate that rehearsal tactic at that moment, but aren't really getting the benefit as their brains aren't being stretched enough at other times.

This post is getting rather longer than I anticipated when I started, so I will leave it to a follow-up post to discuss what kind of practical solutions there are to help.

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