Climbing the Greasy Pole

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John Bertalot produces a wonderful description of the rehearsal process in his book How to be a Successful Choir Director. He says:

The leading of practices is like pushing a man up a greasy pole. He goes up with a bit of effort, but slides down naturally when you leave him alone.

I like this metaphor not just because it is vivid and surprising – and therefore expressive and memorable – but because it is rich enough to tell us things beyond the immediate message it is presented to convey.

The primary point is to cast the rehearsal process as a constant battle against entropy. Musical achievements are not stable things that you can put down somewhere and expect to find them just as you left them without further attention. This may be obvious, but it’s useful to keep the obvious in mind at times. When you turn up to rehearsal and the things you nailed last week are sounding wobbly again, for instance, is a good time to recall this image. Instead of getting frustrated that the gains have slipped back, it helps you think, ‘Oh yes, human beings, they forget things – we need to go over this again.’

That is, it is an image that encourages both a forgiving attitude and an unceasing exertion towards excellence, which is a useful frame of mind to take to choral rehearsals.

And then the image invites you to wonder: once I have pushed the man as far up the greasy pole as I can, what then? Do I just stand there holding him up? Do I let him slip back a bit, so I can do some more pushing? Both of these are going to get quite tiring and boring after a bit – what can I do to get some more height for myself so I can push him further?

The metaphor, that is, helps us to understand what is going on when an ensemble reaches a plateau of achievement where they’re continuing to work hard, but achieving improvements only at the surface level of detail. A certain set of methods may very take a choir very successfully to a certain point, but will inevitably reach a limit where the best they can do is maintain that level.

And the most useful thing a director can do at that point is notice what’s going on and take the hint that it’s time to find some new working methods to extend their reach.

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