Coaching by Skype

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CleftomaniaCleftomaniaLast week I had my first experience of coaching by Skype. I know some people have been doing this for some years, but I had been somewhat hesitant because my experience of the technology in its early days had been quite frustrating. It was okay as an alternative to the phone – you could live with the problems of intermittent sound and the picture freezing in return for the lack of cost and novelty of the video contact. But I had reservations about using it for something that is such a full-sensory experience as coaching.

I was persuaded to give it a go, though, by the quartet Cleftomania, who are based in Portugal. I went out to work with them last year, and will be heading out there again later this month. Not unreasonably, they’d like coaching more often than once a year, but budget and logistics make this difficult. So we gave it a try.

And it worked reasonably well. Certainly well enough that we all felt we’d achieved something in the time, and well enough that they would like to repeat the experience. So, whilst I am about to enumerate the details of the drawbacks, this is in the context of an overall acceptable experience. I was pleasantly surprised how much I could see and hear of their performance.

The technology is certainly not yet transparent. We still suffered occasional interruptions of sound or picture, and these were material impediments to our work. When playing with the detail of how to energise a diphthong, it really doesn’t help if the sound cuts out just as the singers turn it, then look hopefully for feedback as to how they did. Um, could you try that again please?

The delay between sound and picture was less of an issue while they were singing (strangely) than when we were talking. This was one of the pleasant surprises. But it made me realise how closely I usually watch people’s eyes while I coach, to track how they’re responding to what I say: do I see comprehension, enlightenment, bafflement, disagreement? Gesture, speed and content of my sentences all gets adjusted in real time. So, what with the delay, the slight graininess of picture quality and the small size of four people on the screen, I was losing a lot of information about how things were going. You just have to give a complete sentence and then wait to see if the response is ‘okay’ or ‘eh?’ The granularity of the experience is noticeably coarser.

And, whilst I could hear a considerable amount of musical and sonic detail, I was aware of not being able to feel the sound. One result of this was that it ruled out a whole chunk of activities related to the development of their unit resonance that I might normally have worked with them on. The medium certainly influences the way I was prioritising.

Another result was that I found it much harder actually to find pitch to sing demonstrations – something that I found rather embarrassing to be honest. It seems like an extraordinarily basic thing to struggle with, especially given the amount of time I spend working on musicianship and aural skills with people! It’s not even as if I was unfamiliar with the arrangement we were working on. I’m sure the fact they were singing it in a different key from the one I’m used to made a difference (I had to use my ears rather than my muscle memory), but it also showed up how much of my regular relationship with pitch is kinaesthetic and/or uses the overtones to navigate.

So, those were the drawbacks. But there were still plenty of things we could and did work on productively, principally drawing out the expressive potential of the song and arrangement, with a little vocal and ensemble work thrown in. Big picture stuff comes over very well: control of tempo, shaping of phrases, depth of characterisation. Whilst it doesn’t compare all that well to face-to-face coaching, that’s really not the relevant comparison here. It compares very well indeed to no coaching at all.

Still, I am glad that we will get the chance to do some work in person later this month, as I tend to think that the Skype sessions will be more effective when they’re a supplement to actual face-to-face work. I’m also glad that I had worked with the quartet in person before. The distractions of the medium were less of an obstacle working within a relationship that was already established than they would have been if we didn’t already have experience of each other’s ways of thinking and being.

The other thing to note is that keeping the session to an hour’s length was probably a good idea. It may be that over time we find we adapt to the medium and can get deeper into that state David McNeill calls ‘inhabitance in the same house of being’. But in the first instance, we were all carrying a greater cognitive load from having to concentrate through the distractions, so a longer session would probably have left us with the diminished returns of mental tiredness rather than the rewards of flow.

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