Thoughts on Performance and Skill-Development

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Over the autumn and winter I found myself teaching two courses designed to bring relative novices up to a decent foundational level of skill. One was the Initial conducting course for the Association of British Choral Directors that took place on four Saturdays in Newcastle between October and February. The other was the Learn to Sing in Harmony course hosted by the Telfordaires for 90 minutes each week on our first six rehearsals of the new year.

I found myself having the same conversation with more than one person on each of these courses, where they would remark that they had practised at home and were confident they could do a particular musical task, but when came to the next session it suddenly became much harder. In the former case, it was about how the beat patterns for 2, 3 and 4 seem simple until you add other things them like cueing, or indeed listening to the singers you are leading at the same time. In the latter, it was about how you can sing your part perfectly well by yourself, but it becomes a lot harder when you add the other three parts into the mix.

In both cases, it led to a conversation about building skills in stages. You need to have worked on the first stage before you can add the second, and whilst that always disturbs the first, it also helps cement it. You learn something much more deeply when you have to achieve it while sharing your cognitive capacity with the next level, and that feeling of having to work much harder is where the best learning happens. You learn far more by practising, grappling with another challenge, then practising again, than you would just be doing the same amount of practice without the challenge in between.

The experience that sparked this post, though, was going through this same experience at the next level up. After the end-of-course performance of the Learn to Sing in Harmony course, a couple of the participants remarked rather wistfully that we’d not done as good a job on stage as we had in rehearsal. They were right, but those of us who had more performance experience were more philosophical about it. It wasn’t simply that it’s inevitable a performance will be less good than rehearsal – in some performances you discover things you’d never previously imagined you could do – so I needed to untangle why you sometimes get worse and sometimes better from the rehearsal room to the stage.

This was when I noticed that we were going as a group through that same kind of process of having developed a collection of skills, then testing them in a more challenging circumstance as the individual participants had gone through between personal practice and rehearsal. When we were in control of the space, with no cognitive capacity hijacked by having a real live audience entering into our musical world, we were right on it. Introduce the distractions of getting on stage and experiencing the reactions of listeners, and we discovered where the weak spots were.

Going through this process not only helps us understand what we need to practise and rehearse more, but, like the experience of making mistakes and self-correcting in rehearsal, actually helps build the skills we’ll need to do it better next time. (I’ve written more about this specific stage of the process [easeylink= arousal_ignition | text=here].)

The first time you do anything is never the best; it is in recovering from your wobbles that you build secure skills. So the first time you perform something is never going to be the best either – especially when it’s not only the first performance of a song but also the first time that group has performed as a unit. But unless you go out there and brave your less perfect performances, you’ll never find your way to your place of Awesomeness.

Fortunately, perfection, while glorious when it happens, is not required to make a musically valuable experience. Audiences forgive imperfections quite readily so long as they perceive skills good enough that they don’t have to worry about them supporting an honest commitment to the performance. And so each audience helps us on our road to giving the next one a better experience.

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