Coyle says to find the best practice strategy, measure the options with the following gauge, remembering the elements with an acronym:
R: Reaching and Repeating
S: Strong, Speedy Feedback
Coyle gives great examples of each:
Reaching and Repeating: "Does the practice have you operating on the edge of your ability, reaching and repeating?" For us, we have to find ways to keep our choir members working hard on things that are possible for them, but outside their current ability. There's always something to strive for, not only the difficulty of the music—we can push them to sing with more beautiful sound, more musically and expressively. But it should be rare that we don't demand the singers do something at least a bit outside their current comfort zone. And, of course, repetition or practice (if done correctly) is the way we improve.
Engagement: "Is the practice immersive? Does it command your attention? Does it use emotion to propel you towards a goal?" He uses the example of two trumpet players practicing an excerpt, one just running through it 20 times, the other setting a goal of playing it five times perfectly . . . and if she makes a mistake, she starts the count over again. I know many stories of athletes who do this kind of practice—that they have to make so many shots in a row before they can finish practice, for example. But we also have to find ways to involve his last question about whether it uses emotion or not. If our rehearsal is only technical (even though that may be a part—perhaps even a large part some days—of our practice time) it's unlikely to engage the singers fully. What is the composer trying to express? How is the text expressed through the music? How can the singers express emotion? These are important questions for us and, if we're successful in answering them, we'll engage our singers much more effectively.
Purposefulness: "Does the task directly connect with the skill you want to build?" Coyle uses the example of practicing free throws: one team waits until the end of practice and each player shoots 50 shots—the other scatters free throws throughout the scrimmage so the player has to shoot "tired and under pressure, as in a game." The second is more successful because it has the players practice what they'll actually do in a game (they won't shoot 50 free throws in a row!). I've talked before about finding ways to do intense, short drills to improve what the choir does (related to my series on coach John Wooden), but also that you also have to find ways to scrimmage/run through music so the choir has the ability to do what they'll need to do at the concert. Right now (as I write this, it's March 26 and our concert is April 14) I'm working with Jan Sandström's challenging (but fun!) Biegga Luohte with my University Singers. There's much that needs to be drilled over and over in short chunks to make the piece work (and for them to master the tricky rhythms and clusters)—but it's also necessary for them to be able to put it all together. So today we rehearsed a few difficult transitions and then ran it for the first time. I will need to continue to mix the two types of practice, gradually moving towards more and more runs of all the repertoire on the concert, so when we get there, we can sing it all confidently, musically, and expressively.
Strong, Speedy Feedback: "Does the learner receive a stream of accurate information about his performance—where he succeeded and where he made his mistakes?" Most of us are used to doing this, of course. It's a major part of what we do in rehearsal. But we need to be reminded that the feedback (to be speedy!) needs to be concise and clear. Don't use more words than necessary. Sometimes it can be general: "You're not together—better ensemble!" At other times it needs to be much more specific: "You're dragging behind because consonants are late--put the vowels on the pulse," or "Altos, you're late after the dot." You have to decide quickly why it isn't right, determine what the necessary feedback is, tell them (or show them) in the fewest words possible (speedy!), and get them singing it again . . . either correctly, or better (after which you might need to refine your feedback so it can be correct).
So for better rehearsals, remember your R.E.P.S.