On Managing Persistent Mistakes: Part 1 - Prevention

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There was an interesting conversation recently in a Facebook group for chorus directors about the challenge of a singer who was consistently getting some notes wrong. They were able to sing the right notes correctly in section, but reverted to the wrongly-learned version when back in the full ensemble.

The director who raised the question framed it in terms of the dilemmas of expectation-setting and qualification for participation in performances. They didn’t want to be the kind of group who excluded people, but equally the errors were disturbing other singers and obviously had an impact on the quality of performances. The ensuing discussion included a lot of wisdom about setting up systems to manage quality control in the context of individual development. The shared goal was to support people to succeed.

There was less discussion though about the nitty-gritty of coaching and rehearsal strategies to deal with this kind of problem and as it was a scenario that will be shared by a lot of groups I wanted to give that a bit of specific attention.

There are two sides the question. The first is how to minimise the chances of learning wrong notes in the first place, the second is how to go about correcting them when they happen anyway. Both, if you are working with human beings, will be needed.

So, firstly, how to reduce the chances of people learning things wrongly. This divides into three stages: how you as director prepare yourself and the team for rehearsal, how chorus members learn their music, and how you structure your early rehearsals of it.

The Prep

As director, you can’t prevent people making errors, but you can anticipate quite a lot of the obvious errors they might make, and head them off at the pass. As you learn the music, notice where you stumble when you sing through each part, as those are likely to be the spots that your singers trip up on too. If you use section leaders to assist in the rehearsal process, it helps also to workshop the music with them, and likewise discover what they find are the trouble spots.

Armed with this information, you can then start figuring out strategies to support your singers. If there is a tricky interval, or a counter-intuitive rhythm, you can invent a warm-up exercise that uses it so that your singers have had the chance to get the hang of it before they encounter it in context. Or you might want to extract a bar or two with the tricky bits in and teach that first, slowly, by ear before introducing the rest of the song, so you know you’ve got the main challenge covered before they dive into the full piece.

Teaching people the right version before they’ve had the chance to create a wrong version won’t of course prevent them making other mistakes you didn’t anticipate. But it still saves you a lot of time and trouble.

The Individual Learning Process

The detail of this will depend on the specifics of how your group typically goes about learning music, but as the group that started this discussion is in a tradition that generally uses a combination of sheet music and recorded learning tracks, we’ll use that as our case study.

First thing is make sure that the learning materials are themselves accurate. Not a problem in this instance as far as I know, but worth stating as it wastes so much rehearsal time when they’re not. Then you need to delve a little deeper into how people are using them. If they are singing along absently-mindedly while they drive or do the ironing, that is a great way to get an approximate result and practise mistakes.

There are some excellent structured methods to using learning materials that significantly increase the speed and accuracy of learning, and it is a good idea to give some attention in rehearsal to their use, rather than just sending people off with learning materials to muddle through as best they can.

A good rule of thumb is that if you are listening to the tracks without looking at the sheet music, you should only listen and not sing along. This is partly because if you are trying to take learning input through the same channel as you are using yourself (sound) your own sound is interfering with the perception of the learning input. Even if you don’t read music, keeping your eyes on the dots will keep you straight on the lyrics, and it’s surprising how much the visual shape helps cement things in memory even when the specific meaning of the symbols isn’t understood.

It’s also a very pragmatic way to manage attention. If you are looking at the sheet music, you are paying proper attention to the task in hand and will be less likely to make and practise absent minded errors.

Introducing the Music

Some groups give music out say a month in advance of working on it and expect everyone to arrive having learned it in their own time. This works if your singers all have the skills to learn things accurately by themselves, but if you are facing accuracy issues in rehearsal, then you need to build in a more structured and gradual approach so that you catch errors early and stop them getting practised in.

I know one director who will not issue the learning materials for page 2 of a new piece until page 1 is being sung accurately in rehearsal. It slows things down initially, but saves time making corrections later. It also gives a clear message about expectations which impacts on what people do between rehearsals and how they go about it.

Section time is also valuable. It is a good principle that section practices shouldn’t be about learning notes, but they are excellent for checking them. Working in small chunks here is also useful as it focuses the attention onto the detail; if you are feeling under time pressure to cover a lot, you are more likely to let small errors slide.

I also like pair-work: people taking it in turn to sing to each other, and picking each other up when they hear something that doesn’t sound right. You may need your musical leaders on hand to resolve the question when non-readers disagree on the detail, but it’s a really high-ratio exercise that also build bonds within the group as well as increasing accountability.

The key to all these activities is that they aim to minimise the number of mistakes made in the first place, and then also reduce the number of times any mistake is repeated without intervention. The things you do at the outset lay down the neural pathways for learning, so anything you can do to make sure things are learned correctly at the start will make keeping it correct much easier. And every time a neural pathway is activated, it grows stronger, so you want to catch mistakes early and prevent them being reinforced.

Okay, this is getting long, I thought there was a lot in there. We’ll continue with the second half of the question - what you do when, despite your best efforts, people have learned and practised errors - in another post.

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