More from Daniel Coyle: Tip# 13 "Find the Sweet Spot." Once again, I recommend Coyle's book highly.
For this tip, Coyle speaks of finding "a place, right on the edge of your ability, where you learn best and fastest. It's called the sweet spot."
He then gives hints on finding that "sweet spot" of learning by comparing the "comfort zone," where the sensations are, "Ease, effortlessness. You're working, but not reaching or struggling," to the sweet spot where the sensations are of, "frustration, difficulty, alertness to errors. You're fully engaged in an intense struggle—as if you're stretching with all your might for a nearly unreachable goal, brushing it with your fingertips, then reaching again." And finally, to what he calls the "survival zone," where the sensations are "confusion, desperation. You're overmatched: scrambling, thrashing, and guessing. You guess right sometimes, but it's mostly luck."
Coyle gives the example of a 13 year old clarinetist, part of an Australian study, who in a particular practice session, suddenly focuses intensely on her mistakes, figuring them out, and fixing them. The author of the study noted that the girl "learned more in that span of minutes than she would have learned in an entire month practicing her normal way, in which she played songs straight through, ignoring any mistakes."
This is analogous to my prior discussions of "drill" versus "scrimmage" (borrowed from the studies of John Wooden's teaching/coaching techniques), which you can find in this post, this one, and here.
It's our job to try to keep the choir as often as possible at that sweet spot, where they're having to stretch hard to accomplish something (learn a difficult passage, rhythm, vocal skill, etc.). This way, their learning will be at the optimum speed. That isn't all we need to do, of course, since we need to run through passages or pieces as well ("scrimmage"), but you can read about that in the other posts.
But our choice of repertoire is also something that needs to push our ensembles beyond their comfort zone. Finding the balance of some music that they can achieve more easily, but some that is almost beyond their abilities (but not pushing them into the "survival zone") is our challenge as a conductor. I've posted earlier about choosing repertoire, and often have tried to find one piece (often contemporary) that will push my students in ways they've never been pushed before. Since I've been involved with Swedish music, that's provided some of this music for my choirs (in recent years with the University Singers at UNT, Sven-David Sandström's Agnus Dei and Thomas Jennefelt's O Domine). But the specifics can and must vary, depending on the level of your choir—children, middle school, high school, college, or perhaps a program you've built versus a poor one you've just taken over—it's our job to find something that will s-t-r-e-t-c-h our choir's abilities. I've found it's often just that piece that the choir struggles with at first, perhaps dislikes, that they like best by the time they perform it. And it's those pieces that push your choir's abilities ahead faster and further than any others.
This is my last post before the holidays—have a wonderful break—and I'll "see" you again in January.