Remote Rehearsing and Vegetarian Cookery

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I know, the metaphors don’t get less random, do they?

I’m writing this post to work through a thought that has gradually been coming into focus as we get used to remote rehearsing and exchange ideas about how we go about it. The starting point was how some ideas made me think, ‘ooh great, we can try that!’ while my response to others was much less enthusiastic. As I remarked recently, this is in many ways just a reflection of the fact that we all have different profiles of skills and approaches.

Still, interrogating why I react so differently to different proposals has led me to a specific observation. As I reflect on the kind of choices I’ve been making when devising online activities for choral groups I realise that I’m starting to approach it in much the way I approach cooking. For context, I’ve been vegetarian since 1987, and that’s when I really started to learn how to cook.

When you aren’t used to cooking for vegetarians, the default approach is to wonder what to do to replace the meat. You are used to thinking in terms of primary protein plus periphery vegetables, and you try and recreate that experience, substituting plant-based stuff for the meat. Some of these substitutions are satisfactory, others less so, but retaining this structure of meal only really makes sense when you are trying to fit in with a bunch of meat-eaters at a shared meal.

Over time your focus shifts from ‘replacing the meat’ to ‘eating well from plants’. You start to think about composing a balanced meal from interdependent elements rather than working out from a high-protein centre-point. You stop being over-dependent on animal proteins such as cheese and eggs as nutritional elements, seeing them more often as garnishes. You quite often notice halfway through dinner that it’s vegan.

So, whilst I still cook the occasional Quorn cottage pie, and usually have a box of Linda McCartney sausages in the freezer for days when time and imagination run short, my cooking these days isn’t about trying to recreate an experience I last had while I was still at school, but about creating a tasty and nutritious experience for today.

The aspect of this that resonates with remote rehearsing is aiming to find out what you can do well in this medium, rather than constantly disappointing yourself with poor imitations of real, face-to-face rehearsing. Neither conferencing software nor the broadband network have the capacity to handle well-coordinated simultaneity satisfactorily. Trying to recreate that experience by having people sing along to recordings feels to me like one of those meat-substitute hamburgers: it kind of reminds you of the ‘real’ thing, but won’t fool anyone who actually wanted a conglomeration of minced cow.

There are things that video conferencing software does do well, though. Individual coaching, small group work, instructional things like music theory or song analysis. You notice individual lines more in the music; you learn the texture and feel of individual singer’s voices.

So the ideas I find myself responding to most are those that exploit the specific strengths of the medium, rather than just working within its limitations. A few examples for fun:

  • A passing comment from Telfordaires tenor section leader Andy Woolley brought us toggling between singing with tracks muted and unmuted, in the manner of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue.
  • I forget who I should be crediting for the using the spotlight function to highlight individuals during a sing-through – giving everyone the opportunity to see how others are performing, while significantly raising the stakes of the experience
  • Stefanie Schmidt had the most brilliant idea for exploring the relative contributions of visual and vocal cues in expressive communication: have people say or sing the same phrase to each other while either muting their mic or stopping their video. Lots got learned that evening!
  • We recently had Hat Week, an idea stolen from Capital Connection chorus. Planned as a totally frivolous thing, we actually found ourselves using the hats as a tool for musical analysis (put it on when you have the melody, take it off when you’re on harmony). Yes, we could in theory do this in face-to-face rehearsal, but it wouldn’t involve quite the number of hat changes, or indeed hat stacks, to which we were treated.

Mostly, planning remote rehearsals feels like that old joke about someone asking for directions and being told, ‘Well, I wouldn’t start from here…’ But over time I’m getting used to starting from here, and finding activities that are designed within and for the virtual rehearsal experience seems to be key for making this a comfortable space for everyone to work in.

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