Sunday, April 15, 2007

Blame it on the weather

Sometimes we’re just out of tune. All of us. Whether it’s six, or sixteen or sixty singers, sometimes everyone is out of tune. They’re out of tune with each other, the harmonies just aren’t working, the pitch is dropping dreadfully – it just isn’t working.

Now if this were just one or two people then OK, perhaps they’re having an off day or are tired or had a difficult day at work. But the whole group??!! What’s going on here? A few out of tune voices might have a slight knock-on effect to those around them, but how come the whole team is off key? This doesn’t happen often, but it’s happened enough times for me to realise that it’s a recognisable phenomenon. There is nothing one can do about it (I’ve tried!). So I just blame it on the weather. It’s not the singers’ fault, it’s something outside them that’s affecting the whole room. Maybe it’s the full moon, or we’re in a high pressure area, or the humidity’s low – whatever it is, it’s nothing to do with us.

This is very different from those rehearsals where things seem to be going wrong, but it’s just a case of a bit of a pep talk, a heightening of focus and attention, or simply running the song again and everything's back on track. This we can fix. In those cases we get back in tune OK. But not on bad weather days.

It’s happened enough times now for me to just point it out and try to get everyone to accept the situation. “It’s just one of those nights! Next week will be fine” At first it really spooked me. We had such a good session the previous week and now it’s all going pear-shaped. It must be my fault, I’m not teaching very well or maybe I should be doing something different. Then I remembered my days as a runner.

I used to be a long-distance runner, culminating in a half-marathon before I had to give it all up (don’t ask!). Most nights I would go out jogging for a good few miles come rain or shine. Many times I’d get back home on a real runner’s high. No matter how wretched or tired I felt when I set off, I’d come back glowing and full of energy. The next night I’d set off perhaps feeling a bit low but knowing that at the end of it I’d feel great. Only sometimes I didn’t! I began to realise that how I felt at the end of my run was kind of random. Many times I’d feel good, but sometimes I’d feel lousy. If I tried to hang onto the memories and feelings of the last good run and expect to come back feeling wonderful, I’d only get doubly disappointed. So I learnt to have no expectations. What happened would happen, despite me.

I think this is what Zen calls beginner’s mind. The idea that each time you do something, no matter how many times you’ve done it before, you approach it as if it were the first time. This also connects with my time as an actor. I used to do a lot of improvisation and at first would try to repeat the things that went well the last time. But of course it’s never as good or as spontaneous the second time round. So I learnt to approach each improvisation as if it were the first time (which of course it was!).

This can be applied not only to “bad weather” sessions, but also to warm-ups and performances. I try to vary the warm-ups and vocal training each week, but inevitably (and usefully) we often repeat the same exercises. There are two ways of dealing with this: either you can just go through the motions because you’ve done it loads of times before and you just want to get through it to get onto the singing (the fun part!), or you can have a beginner’s mind and approach the exercise as if you have never done it before. You may then discover new things about how your body and voice work, you will stay engaged and fascinated, and you will benefit from the warm-up much more.

Similarly, when a concert comes along, you can try to re-create the wonderful performance that you had the last time, or you can behave as if you have never done this before, be totally in the moment, and move into the unknown, learning, wondering and developing as you go.

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Chris Rowbury


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