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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Building Skills 11

More from Daniel Coyle: Tip #14 "Break Every Move Down into Chunks."
This is something that most conductors know how to do, whether or not they know this terminology.
As Coyle says, "From the time we're small, we hear this good advice from our parents and teachers: Take it a little bit at a time. This advice works because it accurately reflects the way our brains learn. Every skill is built out of smaller pieces, what scientists call chunks."
His advice in terms of skills is to, "first engrave the blueprint of the skill on your mind." (see the post on Tip #2 "Then ask yourself:
  1. What is the smallest single element of this skill that I can master?
  2. What other chunks link to that chunk?
"Practice one chunk by itself until you've mastered it—then connect more chunks, one by one, exactly as you would combine letters to form a word. Then combine those chunks into still bigger chunks. And so on."
This is, of course, what we do when we rehearse. But I would also stress rehearsing the transitions from one chunk into another. That way you don't have chunks the choir can do easily, but can't string together. It doesn't take much time. Practicing one section or one phrase, just make the transition into the next one and then go back to practice again.
I remember that Lloyd Pfautsch, in his chapter on rehearsing in the Decker and Herford's Choral Conducting—A Symposium, suggests ranking the sections of a larger work by difficulty, then learning the toughest portions first to make sure they get more rehearsal time, rather than mindlessly starting at the beginning and working your way through in order. So, if there are 10 sections of a work and numbers 3, 6, and 9 are the most difficult, you'd begin by working on them, then gradually work on the others, connecting as you learn adjacent sections. Seems like common sense, but it's really a brilliant statement about how to approach larger pieces (this doesn't only mean major works, but any work which is multi-sectional).
Of course, you can also do that with your whole program, even if it's all shorter pieces: rank them in terms of which ones will take the most rehearsal time and plan accordingly. This is probably what most conductors do, but somehow in rehearsing larger works it can be forgotten.
Skills, not just rehearsals can (and should) be taught in this way, too. This analogy comes from a short article on coaching Lacrosse: "Think about how small children become mobile. First they crawl, then they learn to stand and eventually they take those first steps. Once they have mastered walking, the pace increases and they’re off and running."
In teaching young singers to sing properly you have to start with fundamental skills and master them (which also means constant reinforcement): first posture, then breath, then learning to use the breath to phonate, etc. Steps are taken gradually to build up the skill of making a good vocal (and choral) sound.
Look to see if some of the things you're trying to teach your choir have been broken down into small enough chunks for the choir to learn them properly. It's the way skills (and music) are built, from the ground up, one chunk at a time.

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