Yesterday, around lunchtime, I passed by Codarts (The Conservatory of Rotterdam) where students of two Latin music ensembles taught by Marc Bischoff were giving an informal work-in-progress presentation: Latin For Lunch. Although my purpose was only to get out of the house and to listen to some music, I found the presentations to be very inspiring for my research.
The first thing they made me think of was this: Music is communication, a shared experience between performer and listener. Having myself gone through a formal music education, with all its focus on skills and knowledge, I sometimes wonder if we are forgetting about the basic purpose of music – communication? Obviously, we do need a certain set of skills and a certain knowledge in order to be able to communicate what we want and need to express. These skills form an important base upon which we can express ourselves creatively. I’m just wondering, whether somewhere along the way we got so hooked on the importance of the tools of communication, that we lost sight of the importance of communication itself?
Naturally, every act of singing or music-making, every performance, comes with technical aspects. Examining work-in-progress (or “final presentations”, for that matter), provides us with a great deal of information on areas of singing and music including:
- Presentation skills and body language
- Knowing the songs and the repertoire
- (Singing) technique and sound choices
- Microphone technique
- Musicianship skills such as ear-training and rhythm
- Group dynamics, balance and interaction
…and so on, and so on.
Showing and observing work in progress gives us the opportunity to become aware of and correct habits, mistakes, technical issues and shortcomings, test interpretation ideas, try out whether we can use the skills and knowledge we have obtained in different situations, and learn to adapt to different (unexpected) circumstances. It gives us the chance to try out how the audience reacts to our ideas and expression, and is therefore also a valuable means of performance education.
Let’s play around with the idea of showing work in progress. An informal work-in-progress presentation or performance opportunity could be any of the following situations:
- Record lessons on video and observe it (see the performance).
- In the lesson, record songs on audio and listen to them (an audio recording is also a type of performance).
- Let the lesson time of two individual students overlap a bit, so that they can perform work in progress for each other, or: combine the lessons of two individual students into a duo lesson.
- Organise regular group lessons where the teaching is in masterclass-form.
- Variations of the above, including students of two (or more) teachers.
- Have all tuition as group lessons (I have good experiences with this form of teaching at a professional level from Complete Vocal Institute).
- Once every so many weeks, have an open doors-lesson, that visitors (family members, friends, colleagues) can attend.
- Look for performance opportunities within or outside of the school, in the community.
- Latin For Lunch, Blues For Breakfast, Songwriters For Supper….you get the idea 😉
I challenge you to come up with at least one more possibility!
“But it takes time off of my lesson time! And they still have SO much to learn! They are not ready for it yet!”
If you consider showing work in progress, and evaluating it, an integral part of the learning process, it does not take time off of your lesson time. These performance opportunities become just as important as learning technique, repertoire or musicianship skills. I’m not saying we need to go all wild and start putting every single step of the process on public display. What I am saying, though, is that valuable learning opportunities are everywhere, if we just think outside of the box. And regarding the last one – sometimes it might be good to check who is not “ready yet”: Is it the student? Or…is it the teacher?
“It’s so much work!”
Yes, we all have a big workload. I know all about it, I’ve taught singing and music in almost every possible setting from the private studio and shorter courses to schools and institutions. I am aware not only of the amounts of lessons and students combined with time-restraints, but also of the administrative workload and various meetings, shortcomings in payments for extra work, and other things which I won’t go into right now. What I have come to experience though, is that even the smallest things make a difference. Having two students share their lesson time now and then, or recording a lesson might require some organisation and extra effort, but we’re not talking organising a whole festival here! And regarding the effort, it’s good to keep in mind that nothing manifests by itself. Neither do performance opportunities or audiences “in real life” – they too require an effort to be made.
I’m not saying all teachers or institutions are focusing only on developing skills and presenting end products, neither is my purpose criticising anyone. What I do want to bring up, is the importance of presentations and performances at all stages of vocal and musical development. We should watch out that we don’t get too caught up in “learning the craft” and risk ending up forgetting about the important aspects of communication and performance. Also consider this: you might learn many skills and gather a lot of knowledge, but you might still end up not being able to use these skills properly because you have been trained to do so only in one fixed set of circumstances. Inability to adapt to various situations causes a lot of (performance) stress, and can even instill performance anxiety. Let’s not wait until we are / the student is “ready”. Because the fact is, we will never be “ready” for every possible situation along the way.
As an example of not being ready, this article is perhaps not “ready”. It’s just a trail of thoughts, with a beginning and an end that give it some structure. I can observe it and become aware of my grammar and spelling mistakes, learn different ways of composing my thoughts into sentences, or find out that I might have put too many thoughts into one composition. But should the risk of making those mistakes keep me from writing and showing it all together? If I would wait until I’m ready, I would never write.