In all of the talent hotbeds, from Moscow to Dallas to Brazil to New York, I saw the same facial expression: eyes narrow, jaws tight, nostrils flared, the face of someone intently reaching for something, falling short, then reaching again. This is not a coincidence. Deep practice has a telltale emotional flavor, a feeling that can be summed up in one word, "struggle."
Well, I don't want my singers having tight jaws (!), but I do understand the image—one of individuals or a group focusing on doing something they can't yet do.
Much like teaching your choir to embrace drill—not as something to avoid, but as a way to internalize and make automatic music or a skill—we need to teach them to embrace that which is truly difficult for them. Coyle again,
Most of us instinctively avoid struggle, because it's uncomfortable. It feels like failure. However, when it comes to developing your talent, stuggle isn't an option, it's a biological necessity. . . The struggle and frustration you feel at the edge of your abilities—that uncomfortable burn of "almost, almost"—is the sensation of constructing new neural connections.
I remember working with a voice student years ago and sensing his growing frustration in the lesson. I finally asked him what was bothering him. He replied by asking why I was so negative and spent so much time working on the things he couldn't do instead of praising him for the things he could. I answered that I did recognize (and told him) all those things he did well, but if we spent most of our time on things that were easy for him, he wouldn't make progress. We then worked together to find ways for him to feel good about his accomplishments, but also to put up with spending most of his time practicing those things that weren't easy—which were, in fact, a struggle.
In the same way, we need to find ways to teach our singers to embrace struggle. This is a great lesson for them not only in the choir, but in the rest of their lives as well. And of course, it's a lesson to us, too—not to be content with those things or the repertoire which we already know and do well. We need to explore, to push boundaries, to try new things—to live with uncertainty and the possibility of failure. Those things that are worthwhile do take struggle, but that's the only way we grow.