Sunday, April 19, 2009

Getting the best out of your choir 4: preparing for performance PART 1

Sometimes, no matter how much you’ve rehearsed or prepared your choir, the concert just doesn’t quite measure up to your expectations. What worked perfectly in rehearsal ends up sounding quite ropey. Those confident singers suddenly look like a bunch of startled rabbits in the headlights. That wonderful resonant sound you had comes across as thin and lacking in energy. What went wrong? Is there anything you can do to prevent this happening next time?

Of course, I don’t have all the answers, and every choir is a different beast. However, I’ll jot down a few musings here that may be of some use. I’d love to hear from all you silent readers out there if you have any useful tips that might help us get the best out of our choirs in performance.

As usual, I seem to have run away with myself and written a much longer post than I’d intended! Just so you don’t feel overloaded, I’m going to split the post in two so you can read Part 2 next week. There’s no obvious division into two parts, but it may give you time to absorb some of the ideas better.

the butterfly of nerves

Nerves are a good thing. A few butterflies in the tummy means that we care about what we’re doing. A bit of adrenaline raises our game and keeps us on our toes. The day we have no nerves at all before performing is the day that we have become complacent and aren’t really bothered about what happens.

But nerves can get out of control and turn into performance anxiety. Even at a low level, if a singer hasn’t performed much, then nerves can get in the way of a good performance. Inside flutterings and anxiety can:

  • produce quick, shallow breathing
  • make our mouths dry and our tongues stick
  • cause tension in our necks and throats
  • make us forget things (words, song structure, which part we sing, etc.)
  • focus our minds on the wrong thing (i.e. the mistakes that we might make)
  • stop us from noticing our surroundings and fellow singers
  • make things run much faster than we would like

One excellent way of countering these nerves is to simply take a big, deep, long breath. If you also raise your shoulders high when breathing in, and drop them on a sigh when you breathe out, it helps to release any tension in the neck and throat.

fear of failure

One of the reasons we get nerves in the first place is that we want to do good. We want to:

  • get things right and not make mistakes;
  • please and entertain the audience;
  • make everyone like us and think we’re wonderful;
  • support our fellow performers and not let them down;
  • please our choir leader and make them proud;
  • appear skilled, professional and in control — we don’t want to make fools of ourselves!

All good aims indeed. However, we must remember that we’re not in this alone. It’s team work. As long as you know you’ve put the work in, know what you’re supposed to be doing, then you can trust that the whole team will gel and you will carry it off. A large group has a force of its own. Although you’re a vital component of the choir, a minor mistake from one individual will go unnoticed. Prepare well and keep a perspective at all times. It’s only a concert after all!

be here now

When our nerves get the better of us it means that our mind ends up focusing on all the wrong things. We worry about remembering words that we spent all those weeks learning, we fear all the mistakes that we might make in the performance to come, we are concerned about what the audience will think when the concert is over. Instead, we should be focusing on the task at hand and staying in the moment.

Easier said than done, but if you focus on the here and now — how you are breathing, what your posture is like, preparing to sing the first note, being attentive to the conductor — then there will be no room in your head for any worries! You are just here to sing, so that is all you need to do. Stop holding onto the past (“It was better last time we did it”) or being concerned about the future (“I hope I remember to repeat the last verse”) and just be with the music as it arises.

When we see performers on stage and marvel at their ‘presence’ we think that it’s some kind of magic. But the word ‘presence’ simply means that the performers are totally in the present and only engaged on the task at hand. That’s what makes them so watchable.

expectations and beginner’s mind

It’s very hard just to stay with the present moment. We all anticipate and bring expectations with us. We remember that last concert when everything went pear-shaped, or the performance last year which was one of our best and everyone was firing on all cylinders. We know that the tickets have sold out so we expect a large and attentive audience. We are so proud of the complicated song that we’ve been working on for the last few months and are convinced that it will go down a storm.

Unfortunately, our expectations are seldom met! We are often disappointed when things don’t turn out as we had hoped, or are totally surprised when something goes extremely well. The way to avoid disappointment and to bring freshness to every performance is to imagine that this is the first time you’ve ever done a concert and the first time you’ve ever sung these particular songs. Have no expectations other than to do your best under the given circumstances. What will happen will happen regardless of what you expect. You have no control over it.

I’ve written before about this idea which Zen Bhuddism calls ‘beginner’s mind’ (Blame it on the weather). If you approach a song each time as if for the first time, it will be forever fresh and you will continue to discover new nuances in it.

be prepared

Although you don’t want to come to your performance with expectations, you do need to anticipate things that might happen as you don’t want to be thrown by the unexpected. The most obvious thing to anticipate is that you need to know what you’re doing! So be well-prepared and rehearsed. Know the words, know your part, know the structure of the songs and the order they will be sung in, know where you will be standing, know if you have an encore song and know how to bow at the end.

But this preparation may not be enough to cover all eventualities. There is a big difference, for example, between knowing your words at home and remembering them in a performance situation. You may think you are well-rehearsed, but you need to practice songs in many different circumstances, not just in the familiar rehearsal room set-up. Try remembering the lyrics whilst washing up, whilst driving, whilst walking along the street, whilst making the bed. The greater the range of contexts that you practice in, the more the song will be embedded in your memory.

Similarly for any song, don’t always stand next to the same person, or always face the same way in the rehearsal room. Find all the ways of doing the song in the ‘wrong’ style (as opera, as country and western, as reggae). Rehearse a song while the whole choir is walking around the room at random. Practice a harmony song in small groups not just in the whole choir. Work out a strange dance routine to practice whilst singing a familiar song. Sing a song in reverse order. Swap parts around. Play with songs in as many different ways as you can, then when you come to doing it ‘straight’ it will be much easier.

One important thing that you can’t ever really be prepared for is the audience’s reaction. Sometimes they will applaud every song loudly and jump to their feet at the end. Other times they may appear to be sleeping and applaud in a lacklustre way. This can have a huge effect on the singers. If the response isn’t as enthusiastic as we need, then we suddenly think they don’t like us and the whole performance becomes filled with doubt and lack of confidence.

On the other hand, you can just as easily be thrown by an over-enthusiastic response to a song that you think you didn’t perform well!

You have to sing the songs for yourselves more than for the audience. Go out there to have a good time, and if the audience like it too, that’s just an added bonus. It’s impossible to work out how an audience feel towards a performance just by how they applaud or appear to be paying attention (see What you feel, what they feel next week).

that’s all folks!

Well, that’s all I’ve got space for this week. Next week in Part 2 of preparing for performance I’ll look at stage time vs. real time, standing positions on stage, how new things affect us, and why people can have such different experiences at the same concert.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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