Remote Rehearsing for a Time of Social Distancing

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From this week, the Telfordaires are moving to remote working for our weekly club night. We made this decision, first, for the obvious public health reasons. Well, I say obvious, but apparently not so very obvious to the UK government, who seem happy to ignore WHO recommendations. But even if our decision is over-cautious, the second reason still remains. [Edit: a few hours after I published this, the UK advice got more sensible. I think it was modelers at Imperial College rather than this post they were responding to though...]

The position that many groups have proposed of, ‘We’ll go ahead but if you feel at risk, stay away, while we continue with the nice things,’ seems to me rather unkind to those already disadvantaged by circumstance. We wanted to find a way for us all to have the nice things, including those chorus members with specific risk factors and/or family members to protect.

The two main reasons I have seen for continuing choir rehearsals in the face of COVID19 are, first, because cancellation devastates the incomes of freelance choral leaders, and, second, because a choir is such an important social/emotional support for its members. Moving to remote working rather than cancelling addresses both of these, and the second in particular has significantly influenced my thinking about quite how to approach this. (Hat-tip at this point to Elizabeth Davies for telling me to read Daniel Coyle's The Culture Code some time back. I've been thinking a lot about it recently for a different project, and it has also proven very useful for this one.)

This post feels in some way premature – I had intended to wait until we had done our first remote rehearsal before blogging about it. But given the number of people reluctant to change their plans in the face of circumstance, I felt that talking about available options sooner rather than later was more helpful. Choir rehearsal may be lower risk than some gatherings, but it’s unnecessary risk, and this is a numbers game.

(Also, I remember the last gig Magenta did in 2010, where one singer turned up clearly coming down with something. Five of the 13 of us who sang that day spent Christmas in bed with what turned out to be swine flu. Singing together isn’t necessarily as low risk as you think, even for small groups.)

So, that’s the why. Here’s the how.

First, technology. We are in the process of collating info about chorus members’ access to PCs/laptops/phone/tablets, and which platforms they are already using: Skype, Whatsapp, Facebook, Zoom etc. There are multiple options available for interacting online and we’ll be tactical about lowering barriers to access in the light of this info. If we fail to get everyone connected on a single platform, we’ll do different activities on different platforms if need be to maximise the number of participants during the course of club night.

The biggest problem with any of these is that you can’t realistically sing together – there’s too much variability of lag. You can do things where the director leads, and everyone sings simultaneously by separately in their own homes with their mics off. (Thanks to Mary Williams for sharing her experiences with this.) So we are planning to spend some of the evening doing these kinds of activities, as well as have a tea break all together both for club business and catching up with each other. I’m not sure it counts as a real club night unless there are biscuits.

But these limitations have led me to put a lot more focus than usual on individual singers taking it in turns. Once we accept this limitation, it becomes an opportunity to learn about each other’s voices and to develop trust to sing to each other. We already do this to an extent on normal rehearsal nights, with activities such as pair-work to check each other’s part accuracy, and sorting the chorus into its voice-timbre spectrum for stacking purposes. So this is a significant shift in emphasis, but not a complete culture change for us.

The focus on individuals also becomes an opportunity to interact in a variety of groupings. This is both to maximise individual involvement (what Doug Lemov would call ‘ratio’) in rehearsal protocols that involve turn-taking and to increase the experience of social contact in the absence of the corporate sound that would usually bind us together into a sense of camaraderie.

Specific smaller-group activities already on the list include:

  • Me doing individual voice coaching in groups of 2 or 3 (I already had this on the plan for this week with the new cohort who started in January on our Learn to Sing in Harmony course; I will now extend it to other chorus members over the coming weeks).
  • Pair-work on note accuracy, as we already do.
  • Small group discussions of videos of performances and what we can learn from them. I’m hoping my music team will also start coming up with ideas for other kinds of small-group tutorial activities, e.g. on music literacy, or barbershop history.
  • A new section practice protocol based around turn-taking rather than singing together.

There are two things I can see emerging from this experience as culture changes that could stand us in good stead in the longer term. The first is developing protocols that focus on individuals and their specific development needs. We do this a bit, but choral culture often shies away from singling people out, at the cost of leaving people without information about what they’re doing that could be really useful to their growth.

The second is in leveraging the power within the chorus to help each other, since a focus on small-group work means we’re going to have a lot more people facilitating each other, and a lot more mutual feedback than we do in whole-group sessions. Again, this is an extension of things we already do, but entails a real gear-change in how much.

And these two things I think work together. Focusing on individuals in a director-led, top-down rehearsal structure can make people feel very exposed. Taking turns in smaller-groupings is much safer: fewer people to hear the mistakes, and everybody gets equal chances to mess up in front of their friends.

Don’t get me wrong. I am going to miss like crazy the envelope of harmonic joy that cradles me each Wednesday evening. This is not a way I would ever choose to run a chorus if we had the option of being safely together. But since we need to make the shift, we can at least use it to learn different things, and develop different working practices that will enrich us once we can resume normal, face-to-face rehearsals. And we can continue to give both social and musical nourishment to each other during what is already a difficult time, and set to get harder before it gets easier again.

So I hope this has both helped to persuade you to stop facilitating the spread of COVID19 through your choral activities, and given you some ideas about what to do instead. It’s also worth pointing out that if you’re not in any choral social network groups, you should go and join some now. There are loads of helpful, practical discussions about this going on that are generating useful ideas and sharing helpful practical experiences. Go and join in, we need your ideas too!

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