R – Once upon a time as an undergraduate, you were hyperventilating over your conducting technique and trying to remember which way the darn right hand should slide on beat 2 in a three pattern, right? Do you still, or did the repetition cause that to go to the subconscious so you can concentrate on other things? When you sing, do you have to remind yourself to hold the music up and sit tall or did that make it over to the subconscious as well?
Story time… last year I was able to do a workshop on warmups at the New Hampshire Music Educators Assn Fall Conference (that in and of itself doesn’t make me anyone special, but it’s relevant to the story). During the workshop I articulated my warmup trinity of ears, eyes and mind development, and when we got to tone we really developed a great round, blended (same vowel) sound together and moved forward. Next we got to the visual component and did an exercise that required nimble articulation and heavy duty watching the conductor to pull it off. They did it beautifully.
And their tone changed right back as if we had never worked on it.
Why? The fact of the matter is I’ve never not had this happen to me when working with a choir for the first few times. The NHMEA attendees shifted their mental energies from tone to watching visual cues and to articulation. In doing so, the mental energy focusing on tone dissipated. And so did their tone. Unfortunately I hadn’t worked with them long enough as an ensemble to have their tone remain intact automatically; subconsciously. And we talked about that.
We can only expect our singers to aurally transmit two things: 1) conscious decisions, 2) subconscious “automatics”. By definition, their initial learnings will only be applied via conscious thought. They then have the potential to eventually transfer that stuff over to subconscious automatics, which then expand with more and more training (beat 2 of your three pattern?). The benefit is that this then allows more and more of the singer’s mental energy to be transferred to the greater artistic minutia of each song.
You need to create in them the mental focus for the greater artistic minutia while maintaining what they’ve already worked on and established in warmup, not in lieu of them.
So the training is only half (and the easier half at that!) of the battle. It’s one thing to establish good breath support, establish good reading skills, establish good tone, it’s another to eventually have every single member of the choir transfer that knowledge to every single note of every single song without having to think about it. I believe this is where the train most often goes off the track in our rehearsals. When we nail a concept in warmups, do we then insist on it as a non-negotiable reference point the rest of the way? Or do we allow the concept to dissipate depending on what/what else we are working on? I’ve heard and seen many choirs display wonderful musical technique during their warmups, only to have the actual rehearsal begin.
An aligned approach: rehearsal = warmups + sheet music.
INSIST on the reference point. When your choir nails a concept in warmup, you (and consequently they) have the option of insisting on reproduction of that concept every moment of the rest of the rehearsal (the rest of the term?) without letting them get away with anything less. Jarika used to make me laugh when she was student teaching because she was relentless about this! Heaven help the choir the moment she saw or heard anything that strayed from what they had established in warmup! Did it slow down the pace of the rehearsal? You bet. Did the choir develop artistically because of it? You bet. Was it worth it? YOU BET! The alternative is allowing the reference points to kinda sorta still be there. Most of the time. Some of the time. When you’re paying attention to it. Simply put, the latter won’t result in a choir that transfers the good stuff to the subconscious (“gee, I’m always working on this with my choir and they never seem to get it”). The former can. And the subsequent goal of every rehearsal must include training singers to be the ultimate choral musicians: to do the foundational stuff automatically so they can mentally focus on the additional minutia of every measure of every song that really makes a performance sparkle. Don’t let them get away with anything less.