I’ve always been passionate about learning. I think it’s one of the most important things we can do as human beings – acquire new knowledge, new skills, and hone what we do until we’re the best at it that we can be. Why settle for anything less?
I’m also fascinated by the ways in which we learn. Since we started BeVox back in 2010, I’ve experimented with different ways of working with the choir in order for us to learn – not just learning the music, but learning how to sing, how to perform, how to do everything we do. We’ve gone from a very “director-led” approach, where I taught every note to every part by rote, to a far more “singer-led” approach, where everyone learns the material themselves but turns to me to help when they’re struggling. I’m moving more and more down this route this season, and I’d like to explain a) what the end goal looks like, and b) why I’m heading there.
The model I’d like us, as a choir, to be working towards is fairly simple. We provide learning materials for the people who sing with us – sheet music and rehearsal tracks. For singers who aren’t completely new to us, these materials are available before the season even starts – sometimes as much as a month in advance. Right at the beginning of the season (or a little earlier if possible), I provide a “session plan” – showing which songs we’ll cover in each week of the season. In the first few sessions of the season, I’ll teach the songs using a “if you think you know how it goes, sing it, otherwise, listen to it being sung” approach. This enables people who can sight-read the music, or who have downloaded their rehearsal tracks in advance and done some work on the songs, to get stuck in straight away, whilst not leaving behind those who have joined us new and so haven’t had chance to look at the songs in advance.
After the first few weeks, when we no longer accept new singers, we move to a slightly different approach. Singers can learn the music themselves, using the rehearsal materials we provide (sheet music and rehearsal tracks). They come to the sessions with a reasonable knowledge of the song we’re about to start working on. In the session, we concentrate on putting the song together – singing one part against another, adding dynamics, phrasing, working on a blended sound, getting the right sound for the song etc. We can do more technique work too, applying vocal techniques to the songs we’re working on as the need for them becomes apparent.
A vital component of this process is for it to be “singer-led”. As we get to the point where singers are learning the music themselves, it’s really important that they are reflective about this – that they’re sufficiently engaged with the process to realise which bits they might need some extra help with. They can then come to the sessions armed with that knowledge, and begin by asking me for the help they need. This focusses our work in the sessions on the bits that actually need work, rather than spending time going over things that everyone has already got sorted out.
This will take a bit of a mental gear-shift from all of us. Our singers’ involvement in the process will be more active, and they will need to be engaged with their own learning. There’s a difference between having the CD on in the car and having a bit of a sing along with it, compared to focussing on learning the music (including making notes on which bits you haven’t quite got yet). This approach will ask more of our singers, and require a greater commitment on their part.
In return, there are great benefits to each singer, and to the choir as a whole. In the sessions, we’ll spend a lot less time “note-bashing”. This can be a tedious process (especially if I’m spending a lot of time with one part – all the other parts are not singing during this time, and it’s possible to spend a long time waiting for me to finish working with other parts). Spending more time singing should make the sessions even more fun. It will give greater satisfaction too, as whenever we take more responsibility for something, we get more satisfaction from it when it succeeds. It also means our singers will get the best out of me – the expertise I can bring to bear on shaping a performance to be the best it can be, rather than “just teaching the notes”. And finally, the standard of performance we give will improve as a result of all these things.
All of this stems from a fundamental belief I have about striving for excellence. As a leader, if I have low expectations of the people I’m working with, we will only ever meet them. If I have high expectations but don’t provide the necessary support, we are likely to fail. But if I have high expectations, and provide the necessary tools to support people striving for those expectations, we will soar. It isn’t always easy, and it takes hard work and commitment from everyone involved – but the result is something we can all be incredibly proud of.