Two Penny-Drop Moments

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Okay, so one person’s penny-drop is another person’s blindingly obvious, but I thought I’d share two ‘Aha’ moments I had this week so you can feel smug about how you’ve known about them for years. Both were about rehearsal planning, and both arose from specific circumstances that drew things I half knew but hadn’t thought about in detail into conscious awareness.

1. The Rehearsal Focal-Point

Attention span graphAttention span graph
So, we’ve known about the attention-span graph for yonks, and I am accustomed to following its implications in rehearsal planning by scheduling new stuff during the phase just after the warm-up where people’s cognitive capacities will be at their peak. ‘New stuff’ here mostly means new repertoire, though it may mean taking on a new challenge with established repertoire in the context of a particular performance goal. But you need something new to be working on most of the time to keep people feeling like this week’s rehearsal offers something different from last week’s or next week’s.

Last week, the plan was to introduce a new song for the first time. And then I got a call saying the person who was bringing the copies had left them at work, oops. So I had a couple of hours to devise a Plan B. No problem. There was plenty of other material we could usefully work on as we also had a gig coming up that weekend.

But as I shuffled possibilities around, I discovered that nothing else I put in that first, prime slot of the evening felt right. Each activity I tried putting there was something we could usefully do that would improve our performance, but the overall plan left me feeling, ‘Meh’.

This is how I learned that it’s not just that the most cognitively-challenging work of a rehearsal benefits from having the peak attention slot, but that the peak attention slot benefits from having something cognitively challenging to get its teeth into. It lifts the spirits of the rehearsal, ignites us into a state of arousal. Without something that feels special there, we lose an edge of emotional engagement. (Or, at least, I do. But I notice that the days when I am carrying a healthy dose of adrenaline are the days my Magenta friends also sing with more fire.)

In case you wondered, what I chose to do in this occasion was to devise some oral teaching strategies to introduce a number of elements the arrangement uses, so we would be ready to slot them in when we have the music. We spent a bit less time on it than we might have done had that been my plan all along, but we got enough of the ‘new toy!’ feeling to carry us through the evening.

And I now have a much clearer sense of each rehearsal having a focal point that sets the tone for the evening, and frames the overall artistic agenda. This is going to be a useful concept.

2. On Devising Warm-ups from Repertoire

I have been thinking a lot recently about the process of how you analyse music to identify its performance challenges and from there devise teaching strategies both for working on the repertoire and for preparing the groundwork during warm-ups. I will be leading a session for directors on this at LABBS Harmony College in April, and I am also going through the process myself for thee Contemporary A Cappella Stream at the A Cappella Spring Fest in Didcot next month.

It’s something I do as a matter of course with Magenta, of course, but there it tends to get elided with the arranging process. Anything I include in their music as an arranger I am going to have to teach as a director, so I am usually thinking about rehearsal tactics while I’m still getting the dots down. But when directing other people’s music, you don’t get the option just to re-write it if you think it’s too hard to teach, so you have to do a bit more thinking.

Anyway, doing something and preparing to teach it at the same time is a great way to keep your teaching real, and your praxis self-aware. So I noticed something here that I have remarked upon before in workshop situations, but not really thought through as a generalisable principle for rehearsal planning.

It is this:
It is tempting to devise warm-ups from repertoire that use the key moments that recur - the hook-line, maybe, or a characteristic chord sequence - on the grounds that you’ll get the benefit of this practice many times over during the course of the song. But those bits are going to get plenty of practice whatever happens, by virtue of their repetition in the musical structure.

It’s the moments that only happen once that often prove to be the greater challenge in rehearsal, and which will thus most reward extraction and repetition during warm-ups. The reason they prove a challenge is twofold - both because you only get to do them once on any one run-through, so they don’t get practised often, and because they are often composed to stand out from their surroundings, to deliver a surprise to the audience. This surprise also often catches the singers unawares.

So, build your warm-up drills out of the tricky individual moments, so that when they occur that single time in the flow of the song, the singers are already fluent at it and take it in their stride with pleasure rather than tripping up. Sounds obvious when you write it down, doesn’t it?

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