More from Daniel Coyle: Tip #8 - To Build Hard Skills, Work Like a Careful Carpenter
To develop reliable hard skills, you need to connect the right wires in your brain. In this, it helps to be careful, slow, and keenly attuned to errors. To work like a careful carpenter. . . . Precision matters early on, because the first reps establish the pathways for the future. Neurologists call this the “sled on a snowy hill” phenomenon. The first repetitions are are like the first tracks on fresh snow: On subsequent tries your sled will tend to follow those grooves. “Our brains are good at building connections” says Dr. George Bartzokis, a neurologist at UCLA. “They’re not so good at unbuilding them.”
This can have to do with building conducting skills, but has more to do with teaching our choirs.
As we rehearse, we help our choirs build all sorts of hard skills: the rhythms and pitches of the music we’re teaching, the way they approach a high note vocally, proper intonation, etc.. It means making sure that you build each of these correctly. It’s necessary at some points in the learning process to isolate elements to do this.
It’s one of the keys to Robert Shaw’s rehearsal process, which developed through his work with his large symphonic choruses (the Collegiate Chorale, Cleveland Symphony Orchestra Chorus, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus) in order to build in all the different elements correctly. He’s been known to say, “You have to clean the floor before you hang the drapes.”
Pamela Elrod Huffman, who sang with Shaw, has written about Shaw’s techniques and done workshops on them. Here’s an article by Dr. Elrod from Southwest Musician (the journal of the Texas Music Educators Association). Think through what this means in the careful building of the skills (rhythm, pitch, dynamics, text) to sing a given piece of music.
As I’ve stated before, I use some of Shaw’s techniques but work in a different way—and in doing so, run the risk of moving too quickly and the choir learning some things incorrectly (and then having to spend time unlearning them). It’s definitely something for me to think about!
One of the areas I’ve learned you have to be very careful is in working with intonation (you can find my Intonation series on this blog). Allowing your ensemble to sing (even for a surprisingly short period of time) under pitch can build that in so it’s very difficult to overcome.
Think carefully about those hard skills you teach your choir . . . and how you can work more “like a careful carpenter."