From Coyle: "As you probably recognize, most talents are not exclusively hard skills or soft skills, but rather a combination of the two. For example, think of a violinist's precise finger placement to play a series of notes (a hard skill) and her ability to interpret the emotion of a song (a soft skill). . . The point of this tip is simple: Prioritize the hard skills because in the long run they're more important to your talent."
This goes to the challenge of building hard skills—whether in yourself or in your singers—while still making progress in the creative soft skills. Coyle's saying to prioritize the hard skills . . . but how do you do this?
We can relate it to research on the imagined ability of the brain to multi-task. I say "imagined," because all recent research shows that there is no such thing as multi-tasking, but that your brain has to switch back and forth between tasks. And that switching is not efficient. There's even a recent study that suggests that multi-tasking can damage the abilties of the brain!
So, the skills we have to teach our singers have to be prioritized: vocal skills, ensemble skills, musicianship, etc.
This is a challenge, because our groups also have to perform . . . and they also need to learn how to sing musically and creatively. We can't work exclusively on exercises and hard skills.
This was perhaps possible in an earlier era—for example, the stories (probably exaggerated, of course!) that the famous voice teacher Porpora had the singer Caffarelli train on a single page of vocalises (and nothing else) for five years, then saying, "Go young man. You have nothing more to learn. You are now the greatest singer of Italy and the world."
And in a contemporary version of this noted by Coyle, "At Sparktak, the Moscow tennis club, there is a rule that young players must wait years before entering competitive tournaments. 'Technique is everything,' said a coach, Larisa Preobrazhenskaya. 'If you begin playing without technique, it is big mistake.'"
So, what do we do? I think we have to follow the research about "multi-tasking." In other words, there's no such thing as being able to practice both soft and hard skills at the same time. But we can alternate work that allows both (and not in such a quick way as to pretend to multi-task and do both at once).
I've written before about drilling a particular passage, for accurate pitches, rhythms, vowel, intonation, etc. (some of which may well have to be isolated one element at a time), but then after that (see my various John Wooden posts about drill), work with the choir on singing that passage musically and expressively. Or being able to conduct them with freedom of tempo (rubato) or different phrase shapes and dynamics, since the singers are now confident enough to be able to watch and respond. Some of this can be practiced fairly soon—after even a few repetitions in some passages, the choir can master enough of the music necessary to focus on musicality.
And also important is that work on basics (most likely through vocalises or other exercises) is something even an advanced choir needs. Again from Coyle: "The cellist Yo-Yo Ma spends the first minutes of every practice playing single notes on his cello. The NFL quarterback Peyton Manning spends the first segment of every practice doing basic footwork drills—the kind they teach twelve-year-olds."
This means finding ways to carefully balance basic work on hard skills (some of which are basics which need continual repetition, no matter what the level of the choir) and working on the soft, creative skills of musicality and projecting the emotion the composer attempts to express.
It means re-thinking our rehearsal technique. It means rehearsing with an eye towards balancing the absolutely important building of hard skills (see my earlier post relating to Robert Shaw's techniques) and the need to build in musicality early on as well. It's part of what makes what we do endlessly fascinating. Rehearsing is craft, but the combination and balance of techniques can also be art.
P.S. speaking of mentors, Robert Scandrett died on Tuesday—Bob was another important mentor to me. You can find my response to his long and meaningful life here. An amazing musician and person, the study tour of England he planned and led in 1975 changed my life in many ways—take a look, you won't believe what we got to do, who we got to meet, and the performances we heard.