R – I was watching the symphonic band rehearsal at MSYM yesterday morning with an instrumental colleague of mine when he leaned over and asked if I teach concepts to my choirs with metaphors or with technical explanations… energy being created through imagining something or articulating where and how energy is produced for example. And the answer I immediately gave surprised me a bit because I don’t think I had ever articulated it before quite this way: “Instrumentalists are analytical by nature but choral singers are not, and one of my pet peeves is a choir that is not analytical. So I try to go out of my way to explain why technically things occur the way they do, so that my singers have to become more analytical to accomplish the goal.” That made me think that this might be THE most important difference between a band and a choir, and how that has radical ramifications for how we train each. I KNOW it’s at the heart of why I train them the way I do although I may never have reached this specific conclusion as to why.
Instrumentalists are unable to produce music without being analytical. A sound is not produced unless the correct fingering and/or embouchure is employed. Moreover, there is hours of practice an instrumentalist may put in before a selection is able to be performed to satisfaction. It has to be technically perfect or else they’re called on it… one of the hazards of being one of only a handful of others on your part. A choral singer on the other hand will generally put in no outside practice whatsoever. When they don’t get a note, they are generally unable to understand why, outside of, “gee, that’s difficult”. And this passive approach is not only normal, it’s ingrained in our psyche. Everyone sings! Some do it in choirs, some only in the shower or in their cars and others study it professionally. But everyone sings! And they do so largely without being analytical about it. Some in the field would suggest (DO suggest) that asking singers to be analytical actually takes away their love for the art!!! Is this true?
Unlearning the irrelevant in this realm begins with my favorite statement that I make over and over to my choirs: singing is fun but music is work. Music IS work. There is discipline, analytical application of concepts, physical and mental labor required to get an artistic or aesthetic result. I would argue vehemently that unless we train our choirs to understand THAT, we will not be serving their best interests no matter HOW good they sound.
I’ll fess up now. I use metaphors all the time in rehearsal. I love them and they DO work. But they must support concepts which have already been explained in technical terms prior. And I ask my choirs to be analytical in multiple ways in rehearsals… we learned Mendelssohn’s He Watching Over Israel yesterday entirely count-singing before I allowed them to add text. Their brains hurt, and it wasn’t easy, but I now have a choir the rest of the week that understands – and has applied – the role of being an analytical musician. I would also argue that their love for the art isn’t being hindered by being so, anymore than the trumpet players at camp are. Choirs get a bad (but too accurate) rap for being the ensemble that is more concerned about performing with emotion than performing with technical precision; performing by rote instead of by analysis. I think it is fully appropriate to ask ourselves individually as choral directors where our priorities lie as we train our own choirs. There’s no “wrong” approach, but I believe we had better be very careful about the justifications we give for our choices. Training a singer to be analytical? For me, I can’t think of a higher priority.