Sunday, May 03, 2009

Getting the best out of your choir 6: self-reflection

It’s very quiet here today. A typical English spring day: grey and overcast with a soft drizzle gently falling. Tomorrow it’s a ‘bank holiday’ here in England. This was once a holiday for all of us to celebrate May Day, but now it’s just a day off for the banks and financial institutions, most of the shops and supermarkets stay open. And for us freelancers too, it’s business as usual!

On a Sunday the world outside is definitely much quieter than usual. Hardly any traffic, no kids on their way to school, no postman. Just the kind of day when we can step outside our normal routine and take stock.

always rushing

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that there never seems to be enough time to do everything we want to!

“I’ve been meaning to sit down and really learn the words of that second verse.”

“When I get some free time, I’d like to do a better arrangement of that Ukrainian song.”

“Next time I get a spare moment I want to listen to the practice CD again so I can definitely nail my part.”

“Roll on the holidays when I can do some proper research to find some tasty songs for next term.”

We always seem to be in some kind of ‘crisis’ mode, just about delivering what we need to at the last minute. This means that we never really get a chance to take stock, to look back over the last term’s work or most recent concert and think about what happened.

condemned to repeat history

As George Santayana famously said:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Basically this means that studying our history is necessary to avoid repeating past mistakes. If we don’t look back on our past actions and reflect on them, then we are condemned to constantly repeat our errors.

Of course, the flip side of this is that if we do something well, then it’s good to take note of it so that we can repeat it in the future! There is nothing worse than accidentally producing an excellent result without knowing why it happened.

the self-aware singer

Considering our past actions and reflecting on what happened in previous rehearsals, concerts, song learning, etc. is the job of both choir leaders and choir members. The responsibility of getting the best out of a choir lies with all members of the team.

This means that singers need to be self-aware at all times. It is not possible to reflect on earlier experiences if you don’t remember what you were doing! This applies to:

  • warm ups (where are the tensions in my body now? what can I do to release them? how can I carry out this exercise better than the last time I did it? what is the point of this particular warm up exercise and how can I learn from it?);
  • song learning (how does my part fit in with the alto part? why is it particularly difficult to find the start note each time? why is that line/ interval difficult to nail? is there a better way of connecting the words with the music? I must remember to sing my part against the other parts on the practice CD – I forgot last time and it didn’t help!);
  • rehearsal (how come I missed that important note that the director gave last time we rehearsed? why am I always coming in late on that phrase? I need to remember to pay more attention to the tenors this time so I can get my tuning right! this time I’ll write down the verse order so I won’t forget it like last time);
  • performance (at our last concert I couldn’t see the director properly because the lights were in my eyes – this time I’ll make sure I stand in a better place to avoid this; I noticed recently that in every concert I get so nervous that I’m taking shallow breaths most of the time – this time I’ll consciously focus on breathing long and slow before each songs starts; at our Christmas concert I was thrown when the director got us to repeat the last verse – this time I’ll not zone out, but pay close attention all the time!).

I’m sure there are many other things that I’ve missed out, but you get the idea!

the reflective choir leader

Part of a choir leader’s job is to be a teacher. Week on week the choir leader tries to improve the singers’ vocal and aural skills as she constantly strives for improvement in singing quality and performance technique. In order to do this successfully it is important to have an overall strategy, a programme of development work, but alongside this, you must take note of what works and what doesn’t work in order to refine this programme constantly. It’s no good initiating a series of exercises to improve tuning if you don’t take note of whether the tuning has improved or not!

I’m assuming that it is part of any good choir leader’s method to practice your craft in a self-reflective way. If not, maybe you shouldn’t be doing the job! This self-reflection works at several different levels:

from moment to moment within each choir session
You’ve planned the session in detail with built-in developmental work as you move through the session, but you must be prepared for when things don’t work out as planned, or if something goes exceptionally well. You need to be in the moment and prepared to go ‘off script’ at any moment in service to the bigger picture.

from session to session (rehearsal to rehearsal)
Many of us plan an entire block of work in advance with development from session to session. But even if you only plan week by week, you need to look back over previous sessions in order to work out what is best to do in subsequent sessions. Is it worth going over stuff again? Perhaps that tricky song you planned is too adventurous for this block of work. Or perhaps the choir are picking up the new songs extremely quickly, so maybe here’s an opportunity to raise the bar and put in something more advanced like clapping or choreography.

from concert to concert
That tricky song you’ve attempted in the last three concerts has always ended up as a disaster. Maybe it’s time to drop it from the repertoire or find a way of making it work by planning specific rehearsals around it.

The audience always seems to get restless about half an hour into your concerts. Why is this? Is it to do with the structure of the concerts or the repertoire?

For some reason, the Christmas concert was a resounding success, even though it was pretty much the same as the autumn concert. Why was this? Was it just that particular audience, or the different venue, or the new staging?

from season to season
It’s always good to keep the choir on its toes. You may notice that you always start the season of in the same way. Or perhaps every spring season is a classical one. Or you never tackle long, difficult songs in the winter season. Whatever you do: is there a pattern? Do you want to continue that or break it?

from year to year
I always choose the start of the autumn term to look back over the previous year. You may choose a different point, but it’s always good to have a long view. After the long summer break I archive everything we’ve done over the last year and start to think about the year ahead. I like to have an overall view of where we’re heading, what new challenges we may take on, if we’re heading for some significant end of year concert or not. It’s not something I necessarily need to articulate or formally bring into my planning process (although you may well choose to do that), but just thinking about the long view helps me to plan the immediate season in front of me.

from choir to choir
And finally, there comes a day when you may well move onto a different choir. That is the perfect time to reflect on what you have achieved with your last choir. Given your time over again, would you do things the same way? Here is an opportunity to do things better/ differently, to reinvent your self and your process, to start with a blank sheet. It’s all to easy to sleepwalk into a new situation and soon find ourselves up to our old habits!

building on success

This is the happy side of self-reflection: note all the things that go really well and find ways of doing them again! It is just as bad to let a good thing slip through your fingers as it is to constantly repeat bad habits. This is also the time to take the opportunity of not resting on your laurels or of becoming complacent. Just because something went really well, doesn’t mean that it can’t be better next time. The mark of a good, self-reflective practitioner is one who is always on the lookout for ways of making things better.

learning from failure

When something goes really badly wrong, we can get trapped in a period of self-chastisement. We suddenly doubt whether we are actually any good at what we do. We forget all the wonderful things that have happened with the choir in the past. We focus entirely on all the negative aspects of the situation. But this is precisely the time when we need to be in the moment in a non-judgmental way. We need to stand back from the situation and try to note why things went wrong. Analyse the situation dispassionately and learn from it so that next time you won’t make the same mistake.

Somebody once said that rehearsals are the opportunity to try all the ways of getting things wrong, of finding all the ways that don’t work. Then afterwards we are simply left with the things that do work! This is a fantastic example of how we learn from failure and mistakes.

end of the series

That’s the end of this series on how to get the best out of your choir. I hope you’ve enjoyed it and its given you some food for thought. I’d love to hear from your own experiences. Maybe you have something to add to what I’ve said, or perhaps you’d like to recount a specific example of something that’s worked for your choir. Or maybe you just want to let me know that something I’ve said is plain wrong! Whatever it is, I’d love to hear from you, so please leave a comment.

next week

A few weeks back, there was a flurry of activity in the comments section on stage presence and the ‘meaning’ of songs. This is a big and interesting subject, so rather than let it languish in the backwater of comments land, I thought I’d make a whole post about it. So next week I’m going to look at stage presence for singers and the week after that, singing what you mean. In the meantime you may like to read those comments and chip in yourself!


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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