Remediation vs Growth

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While we’re thinking about balance, here is another example of dynamically-connected opposites we need to keep in equilibrium in the rehearsal process. To what extent should we be focused on remedial work, fixing problems, correcting technique, bringing people up to the standards we currently expect, and to what extent should we be stretching them into new areas of skill development and artistic ambition?

This is a perennial question for the choral director – it brings to mind Jim Clancy’s ‘type 1 and type 2’ rehearsing, but it is particularly salient now as people are gradually returning to live rehearsing after, in some cases, nearly 18 months of no rehearsing, or only being able to meet online. A lot of choirs find themselves out of practice in various ways; there’s a lot more remediation to be done than usual.

In these circumstances, the instinct is to focus on the basics. We need to get the voices connected back with the bodies and the breath, we need to retrain the ears to connect with the rest of the sound and the eyes to connect with conductor gesture. (And, indeed, the conductor needs to get their hands and ears connected back up to make that gesture effective again.)

And it’s not just the voices that are out of form, it’s also the brains. There’s suddenly a lot more cognitive processing to be done within the music than people have been used to, and mistakes, fumbles and generally falling out of the music are only to be expected – as well as tiring more quickly than we used to.

But the thing that possibly suffers most of all in these conditions is the confidence. Amidst the tales of joy and relief at finally being able to sing together, there are tales of sorrow and anxiety as current reality fails to live up to the memory of musical experiences from the time before. The thing people have been looking forward to for so long has when it finally arrived proven to be a disappointment. And there’s the fear: what if we don’t make it back to our former glory? Have we lost it forever?

It is in these moments when self-belief is at a low ebb when we most need to remember the other end of our polarity: growth. In tandem with the patience and the methodicalness we bring to our remedial work, a few glimpses along the path to new achievements can really lift the spirits. It reassures people that growth is still possible, that the artistry they remember is not lost, that even when their brains fall out all the time, they can still reach for glory.

Obviously you need a solid foundation for your artistic growth; an artistic edifice built on uneven technical ground remains very vulnerable. But it’s the sense of growth that motivates the commitment to building and maintaining that foundation.

And quite often, I find, engaging with a more ambitious artistic goal sorts the basics out in the same process. A focus on expressive shape, for instance, produces better support and resonance, or a focus on narrative communication sorts out the breathing.

I think this is partly to do with the relationship between focus and confidence. Giving people something to think about beyond themselves (and their current struggles) removes the critical self-monitoring inner voice that can become too constant a companion when you’re underperforming your past self. You’ve only got one brain, and if it’s thinking about musical meaning, it’s not doubting your capacity to sing well. We do better when we’re not standing in our own light.

I think it is also to do with musical identity. By connecting with the musician inside us with artistic ambitions, with the desire to communicate, who revels in beauty when it sounds good, we allow that part of ourselves to show, and to bypass the anxiously out-of-practice post-lockdown musician who arrived at rehearsal.

The in-the-moment quality of musical experience means that whatever is coming into our ears right now is who we are. If we hear a disconnected, tentative tone, we believe ourselves to be fragile and unreliable. If we can hear a resonant sound, or an expressive sound, if we hear some joy in the voices, some rhythmic spritz – even if just for a few moments – then we can believe ourselves to be musicians who can add value to the universe.

It will still take patience and discipline to get back to match fitness, but we’ll all enjoy the process more if we’re not just trying to get back to the starting line, but also have an eye down the road to where our journey will take us next.

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