Retaining musical work through story

This weekend I had the honor of coaching the Mount Baker Toppers at their annual retreat, to help them prepare for the upcoming Evergreen District contest.  They are a pretty good mid-B level group, singing pretty much consistently in tune and in good quality.

One big problem the Toppers and most large amateur singing groups face is musical retention – how can we hang on to what we learn every week, so we can keep building on that ever-growing foundation of skill? Most groups struggle with this, and that makes sense, because most coaching I’ve seen boils down to giving dozens of arbitrary instructions like:

  • Don’t forget to turn that diphthong
  • Do this phrase more softly
  • A little higher on that fifth, baritones!

Based on how effective this approach is most of the time, you may as well be asking people to memorize the first 100 digits of pi. It’s in one ear and out the other.

What does seem to work better is to give the singers the emotional context of the piece, and the basic story i.e. who are you, who are you talking to and why. People are great at remembering stories, and with that in place they’ve got a framework to “hang” all those technical instructions onto, very much like Sherlock Holmes’ “mind palace” and similar real-world tricks.

So in the case of the Toppers this past weekend, what made a huge difference for them was focusing on the story and purpose of the music, and how each major section moved the story forward. For example, one song was the Aaron Dale arrangement of “Love Me.” (Here’s OC Times singing the same song.) At first, they had the whole thing conceived as a sad song. After all it does start with “my broken heart” and a lot of the language, on the surface, is whiney. A more interesting and effective plan for this song is to make it about flirting and seduction, and each form element has lyrics that fit that plan well. (The seduction theme should have been obvious, because OC Times.)

First, who are you: I’m a young guy at a party.
Second, who are you talking to: An woman who has caught my eye
Third, what’s your purpose: I’m flirting with her!

Right away that’s going to be more fun to sing than “I’m whining because she’s mean.”

Here are some example lyrics, and the subtext we gave them:

  • “My broken heart, you tore it apart” – we’re not complaining, we’re being flirty and sexy, right from the edge
  • “Treat me like a fool .. but love me” – extreme lyrics probably shouldn’t be taken literally! Better to think of them as playful.
  • “If you ever go, I’ll be lonely” – you’re the only one for me (probably not true, but fun to say)
  • “I will beg and steal just to feel your heart beating next to mine” – again, extreme words, I think we’re being playful

Yes, the story is repetitive, but this is a rhythm song so you shouldn’t expect Shakespeare, nor do you need it. Complex lyrics in a rhythm song often lead to the dreaded theme confusion trap.

Like most well-constructed songs, the main ideas in the story follow the form of the music. This is handy because the human brain can generally handle 7-plus-or-minus-2 things at once, and often the number of form elements will be in that range. And once the guys can recognize the form elements, they can use that as another easy way to stay in the story, or to jump back into it if they got distracted.

Once the story was in place, the song was a thousand percent more fun to sing and to hear. We worked mostly on two songs all weekend, but instead of leaving the retreat burned out and exhausted, I sensed that everyone left with a new level of energy and confidence. Getting beaten up by a constant barrage of technical instructions and frustration is soul-sucking. Working on the same things through story is energizing.

Honestly, it’s also far more efficient. The easiest instruction is the one you don’t have to give, and in my experience every time a group gets a clear sense of the story behind a piece of music, they do a thousand things right without having to be told. It’s almost like magic! Treat the music holistically and the singers like musicians, and musical things start to happen.

The chorus leadership is absolutely pumped about changing their approach to rehearsals, to incorporate some of these concepts. Like many choruses, over the years they’ve banged their collective heads against the wall trying to be better through technical instruction, and many members have left in frustration. Ultimately if they can keep it fun and make great music, they’ll keep their members and grow.

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