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Speechless Rehearsal demonstration video, part 1, on YouTube

As author of the February 2010 Choral Journal article, "The Speechless Rehearsal," I received requests to see it in action because no video could be found of it being done. I thought it worth putting myself on the line, so I recorded a rehearsal last week with the Central Michigan University Women's Chorus, and edited the warmups down to a 3 minute YouTube video with captions highlighting the techniques used. Nobody was prompted beforehand that it would be a talk-free day of singing, but watch as "right-on-timers" scramble to get into place and listen carefully how initial attempts to whisper go away immediately just by example of "all action and no talk." Do know that each speechless rehearsal I've done has been drastically different due to the day's rehearsal goals, this particular rehearsal focusing on hearing, blend, and balance (and a lot of related vocal technique), with other issues left waiting in line to be resolved in later rehearsals. All in all, we went over an hour uninterrupted by talk. See it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pDvr8N_UHqs
 
Alan Gumm
Replies (24): Threaded | Chronological
on October 16, 2010 5:33am
fabulous, Alan!!!  Absolutely fabulous.  Anne
on October 16, 2010 10:16am
Thank you for sharing that--an excellent demonstration, and you were so wonderfully prepared and skilled.  I would like to suggest taking it a step further now, and eliminate the accompanist's unnecessary spelling of chords and striking the notes so often and so loudly.  The percussiveness has a jarring effect, and, to me, does not enhance your objective of focusing on hearing, blend and balance.  Or, rather than completely eliminating it completely, ask that the piano reinforcement be much more subtle and 'cantabile'.  Thank you for 'putting yourself on the line'.  Outstanding!
Applauded by an audience of 1
on October 16, 2010 4:11pm
Yes, thank you Alan. But I wouldn't want to do this all the time- a small element of focused spoken human interaction allowed back into this could be very effective. For instance, your demo allowed for no singer input into the sound decisions, the director is making all the choices it seems to me.
 
I agree wth Leora- when I rehearse the goal is to not even use a piano. If it stays in the corner of the rehearsal room the whole time untouched- that's a good thing. In one choral arena I don't even have a rehearsal pianist present more than 10% of the time- why waste their time  having them sitting doing almost nothing or worry yourself about bruising their ego if you hardly ever ask them to play?
 
Paul Carey
on October 16, 2010 7:57pm
Yes, your suggestions are perfect next steps on top of my instruction to a delicate-touch pianist to be heard better over the singers, develop her critical listening skills in the rehearsal, and become more of a collaborative pianist than a passive accompanist. She gave what I asked with the eagerness you can hear, now out of balance to the other extreme and in the way of the goals for singers. She's been eager for more feedback, and will appreciate these suggestions.
 
As noted in the Choral Journal article, the speechless rehearsal is a novelty for occasional use to weed out bad habits of excessive talk by the conductor and interrupting talk by singers. From my book Music Teaching Style: Moving Beyond Tradition (Meredith Music, 2003), you would know my strong viewpoint that we must balance traditional teacher-centered practices with student-centered interactions that lead to deeper learning. By tradition, we aim to be more assertive, efficient, motivating, and positive reinforcing of tasks we want accomplished. But we need to also develop interdependent and collaborative group dynamics, ask critical thinking questions, and foster independent artistry, creativity, and affect for music. I am glad you recognize the speechless rehearsal as but one tool that must be used in balance with other educational goals and teacher-student interactions.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on October 16, 2010 3:31pm
Alan:
Not often enough do we share our appreciation of an inspirational moment with others. Your YouTube is exemplary. So much is being learned in your room of music.
This whole process of getting our singers to learn to learn is such an exciting and engaging process. What you are doing is so powerful. The attentiveness, the complete buy in by each and ever singer, the way the singers are using their memory and thinking skills, the visual effects and the way your students are visualizing, all of these things are inspiring.
Yes, you may have put yourself out there by creating the YouTube, but in doing so you have brought each of us into your world of passion for making music beautiful.
Bless you,
Frank DeMiero
Applauded by an audience of 1
on October 17, 2010 12:56am
This is fabulous.  
 
I'm going to shock the socks off my community choir singers and make the next session a speechless one!
 
Thanks,
Jane
on October 21, 2010 4:23am
Jane, I'm curious how it went with your choir. Hope all went well your first go at it. --Alan
on October 17, 2010 11:17am
Hi again, Alan.
 
I feel I need to follow up and make sure you know how happy I was that you posted this- I think I sounded too critical earlier and really wasn't meaning it to come across that way. It''s great to hear about that energy and emotion that was in your room- that's what we all want, right?
 
Also, it seems to me that the biggest criticism master conductors have of young conductors during conducting  masterclasses is how much excessive talking they are doing, and how much time is being spent not singing. Of course this is often a lack of confidence issue with young conductors-- they seem to feel safer telling people (and rambling on and on) how to sing a piece , rather than just showing it and doing it. So perhaps a speechless rehearsal or something close to it might be a really valuable tool to try in college level conducting classes, what do you think? Far more singing. far less talk = way more engagement and a whole lot of other beneifits.
 
Paul
on October 17, 2010 12:45pm
I agree Paul, it is often quite annoying watching conductors spend more time talking than rehearsing. I believe more conductors need to be trained to speak less during a rehearsal. You can accomplish so much more and the ensemble is able to focus and therefore you have perfect blend and balance and the ensemble is working as one united body. It truly takes the mind, body and spirit to sing!
 
Once a conductor learns to get results without having to speak much, he or she can go far beyond notes on a page and begin making musical artistry and from there you can only grow as musicians. This is indeed an awesome video!
 
Chris
on October 18, 2010 4:43pm
Paul,
Oh no, I didn't find your comments critical at all, but as a terrific opportunity to dig deeper and see the bigger picture. This is a discussion forum, after all, and you brought greater balance and clarification into this narrow topic. I just took advantage of the opening you offered to help provide the bigger perspective you pointed out so well. I also felt obliged to take the blame off my young student accompanist and place it correctly on myself for not providing the same level of feedback to her as I did for the choir, ironically stuck in a speechless rehearsal when I so wanted to ask her to stop "helping" so much. You called it right, Paul.
on October 18, 2010 9:26am
I loved the video!  I was just curious if the accompanist at that rehearsal was someone who you have worked with a lot and did you communicate with him/her prior to the rehearsal?  Is it possible to do a speechless rehearsal with an accompanist who you have not worked with much?
 
Thanks,
Austen
on October 18, 2010 6:39pm
Austen,
I think the issue of my young accompanist is explained more thoroughly since your posting, so I refer you to the added comments above. Speechless rehearsal techniques work very well in brand new situations with accompanists and choirs who I have never worked with before, as I enjoy doing when working as a guest conductor. Nothing communicates efficiency, effectiveness, and artistry like getting down to business without a word.
on October 21, 2010 11:29pm
Wow - what a zinger!!    
 
It took 3 days to plan it so that I'd be able to move fast from one thing to another without the normal "think while talking" thing going on.  
 
We are an a cappella choir, so I didn't have to coordinate with a pianist.
 
What I did was to begin with call and response warm ups on a strong count of 4 without any stops.    I've never done this before and my goodness, I was surprised at the immediate positive result.       When the usual latecomers came in, there was only one thing for them to do and that was scurry to their place and join in.     It was pretty electricfying because no one expected, it but I could see from their big smiles that they really liked the pace and the content.   I never had to stop and explain the details of what I expected:  by just doing it and them copying saved oodles of time. 
 
From the warmups I went straight into the individual parts of the first song we are learning, which I had indicated by pointing to its name on a white board, and went through the parts one after another before bringing all the parts together.    Still no one dared talk, even waiting for their turn - there was an overwhelming feeling that a speaking voice just wouldn't have sounded right.   It's hard to explain so I hope that suffices. 
 
It was 25 minutes before I needed to say anything (which happened to be a page number - and I sang that!). 
 
My choir later expressed that it was fantastic to start straight away with continuous singing.    They also said how enlightening it was that as I was going through the warmups from breathing to tone to rhythm to intervals, they heard for the first time what it was I was trying to do in the warmups.    They had never made a connection before because even though I thought that the warmups were  appropriate for where they are as a choir, some of them had found them disjointed.   
 
Many of them also  expressed how good it was that nobody got a chance to talk the entire time.
 
 The amount of preparation time is greater, but so is the amount of work we can cover and so is the reward of having all the singers engaged from the beginning to the end of the session.
 
This has changed everything for me so I thank you very much, Alan.  
Applauded by an audience of 1
on October 22, 2010 6:42am
Hi Jane -
 
I also lead a speechless rehearsal last night for the first time last night with my adult church choir.  I thought it went very well.
 
However, I'm just curious why the amount of your prep time was greater.  I actually didn't spend more time than normal planning my rehearsal.
 
Austen
on October 22, 2010 1:40pm
Austen - you are probably cleverer than me!    I found that I really had to re-think my whole approach and plan how each warm up was going to lead into the next one seamlessly, and then practise doing that from memory.     I have a visually impaired singer and choose not to use a white board for anything but a list of the songs we will be practicing.
 
I don't mean that I was sweating over it for 3 whole days, but during those 3 days my plan evolved.   Now that I see what happens the thinking and prep will be a breeze.
 
on October 22, 2010 4:39pm
Jane -
 
I do not consider myself more or less clever than another director.  We all have our strengths and areas where we can grow(:   Since every director is different, he/she will learn different things from a speechless rehearsal.  I think that's great!  I tend to plan all of my rehearsals a lot, but for this one I actually didn't do as much planning.  I thought that trying to give directions on where we were starting would have been too difficult.  As a bonus, I found myself listening a lot more and reacting to things on the spot more during rehearsal. 
 
Having a visually impaired singer would certainly be a challenge for a speechless rehearsal!
 
The area that challenged me the most was to delve even deeper into the score.  I had already done score study ahead of time, but there is always more I can do.  My rehearsal helped remind me that it is crucial to know the score extremely well before going into a rehearsal.
 
Austen
on October 24, 2010 1:59pm
Jane and Austen,
Congratulations on your successful first speechless rehearsals. You extended the conversation nicely with the different things you experienced with warmups and score preparation. Cool stuff!
Alan
on October 22, 2010 12:21pm
Great Video Alan,
 
When I was teaching High School I did this very exercise, but called it "Monk Day." I prepped them for the day by introducing the concept the rehearsal prior and informed them that upon entering the classroom, they needed to refrain from talking. 
 
Each of the students lost points on their daily grade if they spoke.  If I spoke, I rewarded them somehow. They saw this as a challenge. 
 
The only problem was identifying measure numbers, but eventually I wrote 1-10 on the board and pointed where I wanted to lead them. 
 
Great demonstration!
 
Dean Luethi
Washington State University
on November 6, 2010 2:13pm
I was intrigued by the demonstration on the video, and spent some time trying to envision my high school choirs spending a class period speechless.  One of the best parts of my choir rehearsals is the easy camaraderie the students have with each other and with me, which is demonstrated in the ease with which we communicate.  So, I was hesitant and cautious.  However, I felt the benefits of such a rehearsal would serve several purposes;
   1.  Students would pay closer attention to what I was "saying" and be more tuned into what was going on in class
   2.  I would listen more carefully to the choral sound the students were making, rather than having to listen and respond to them talking when they shouldn't be.
   3.  Students would become aware of how often they talked, if only whispering to their neighbor, in the course of a class period
   4.  We would all be listening to each other individually, and to ourselves as a group with a more discriminating ear.
 
I have two choirs that I chose to do speechless rehearsals with, and did them on simultaneous days.  The following day, I had a large group rehearsal with all students from both groups, and had a speechless rehearsal that day as well.
 
Successes:
    1.  Students paid much better attention to me, each other, and the group as a whole (partially because it was something new, but also because they weren't distracted by random talking or whispering.
   2.  Students became aware of how often they talked, because they caught themselves on the brink of saying something and clapped their hands over their mouths!
   3.  I became very aware of how much I talk!  Too much!  And I found great physical gestures and facial expressions to show exactly what I wanted, and to show how much I appreciated when they followed the gestures.  I'm very facially expressive anyway, so they're used to that, but I used it to my great advantage those days. 
   4.  I also became much more physically involved in the rehearsal, as did the students.  We moved around to feel the beat, we bounced to feel the inner pulse.  We normally do these things, but doing them without talking helped us internalize them better.
 
Funniest moment:
   At the end of the rehearsal I held up a card that said "talk" and I pointed to me.  I asked in a very quiet voice, "well, what do you think?"   Several students responded that they loved it and how much we accomplished.  One student then said we should do it every day.  Another said, "yes, but you (me, the director) should be able to talk to give us better directions".  And then another said, "And we should be able to indicate that we have a question, and then ask it".  I used my most humorously sarcastic voice, and said, "this sounds vaguely familiar - students quiet and listening, the teacher talking, students raising their hands with questions.  Oh, yes, it's called...school!"  They laughed when they realized they had just asked me for the ideal choral rehearsal!
 
We'll be doing more of these, but I will have different expectations each time.  For a start though, it was successful in that we began to listen more....shhhh.......
 
Sally
on November 21, 2010 10:38am
Outstanding, simply outstanding!
on November 22, 2010 6:42pm
Outstanding, all, especially the showing the video, Alan!!  Speechless rehearsals can develop major esprit de choir! [got that one from the late, great Charles Hirt, quite some moons ago]  Two of the 'WOWs' from Sally's 'report:'  "...we began to listen more.." (she included the conductor listening more), and several students noting "...how much we accomplished."  Soooo, rehearsal time was 'saved?'  Waaaay outstanding!
 
Bit of info relevant to this post:  A 1977 doctoral dissertation researcher video-recorded the number of times five choral conductors used a variety of specified rehearsal behaviors (e.g., talking vs. singing), and also recorded the amount of time the five conductors took doing them.  The types of choral situations that the five conductors worked in were: (1) small town, rural school, (2) metropolitan city school, (3) a two-day high school festival choir, (4) a university undergrad choir, and (5) a professional choir rehearsing for an upcoming U.S. national tour. 
 
On average, the conductors initiated rehearsal talk 199 times in about 84-Minutes of rehearsing, and on average, THEY TALKED 40% OF THE TOTAL REHEARSAL TIME (about 34 minutes).
 
An often unrecognized rehearsal time saver: It's an unpublished research project involving a high school band and two 'guest' conductors.  Two band pieces were selected that were judged to be of similar difficulty for h.s. players, and criteria were determined by which successful learning of the pieces was judged.  First conductor used 100% disapproval feedback.  He only discerned the 'problems' in the band's playing of the piece, and only told the players about those observations.  In the next week, the second conductor used 100% approval feedback.  He only discerned the 'good things'/successes in the band's playing of that piece and only told the players about those observations.
 
Here's the 'punchline:'  Successful learning under 100% disapproval feedback took 33 minutes.  Successful learning under 100% approval feedback took 19 minutes. Hmmmm.  Soooo, positivity does what?
 
[This project was described in Kenneth Murray (1975). "The effect of teacher approval/disapproval on the performance Level, Attentiveness, and Attitude of High School Choruses."  In Clifford Madsen, Douglas Greer, & Charles Madsen (Eds), Research in Music Behavior (pp. 165-180).  New York: Teachers College Press.]
 
Hmmmmm.  Speechless rehearsals.  "...(P)aid much better attention to me, each other, and the group as a whole....(H)ow much was accomplished."  Hmmmmm.
on November 22, 2010 9:07pm
HI, Leon.  You asked:  "Successful learning under 100% disapproval feedback took 33 minutes.  Successful learning under 100% approval feedback took 19 minutes. Hmmmm.  Soooo, positivity does what?"
 
It's called motivation!  And it's nothing new, nor was it new in 1975.  My ed psych book back in about 1955 pointed out that positive reinforcement is more effective than negative, and it wasn't new then, either.
 
But I wonder about followup studies, if any, since the study in question seems not to have dealt with a third possibility, positive comments on errors that needed to be corrected.  And I also wonder whether the study controlled for the number of repetitions, since repetition alone will solve a great many errors cause by incorrect interpretation of what's on the page.  I realize, of course, that you weren't trying to give us a complete experimental report.
 
Interesting, certainly, but sort of out of date.
 
All the best,
John
on November 24, 2010 9:28pm
Leon,
 
This is nothing new to me, as the director, but to the choir, it was!  There is still a residual effect of that one speechless rehearsal, in that when I say "listen", I can "see" them listening!  And, they react faster to what I was trying to get them to accomplish.  We work on what I call "vertical vowels" alot, and when I've given an example of a very wide vowel sound, followed by a vertical vowel sound, and then ask them to listen and raise their hand when they hear the group collectively singing the vowel vertically, it sounds a whole lot better!  If I were to just say, "do this" or "hold your mouth like this", and then give them my feedback on how it sounded, they might be able to do it again.  But when they take responsibility for hearing the sound that we're working on, they are able to "find" it faster, and each time it gets a little more unified.
 
Even as we near our first holiday performance (Dec. 2 - yikes!), I'm still working with the group on listening.  When I said that "we" listened more, it was true.  When I don't have the distraction of quieting students down, I can engage myself fully in the rehearsal.  Distractions affect the director as much (or more) than the singers!  Personally, I've been working on NOT fixating on the students that can't keep their mouths shut, and focusing on my energy and engagement level.  If I keep that up, I have their attention, and their ears!  I'm able to listen and hear the things that we need to work on, and they engage their ears and begin to hear them as well.  I've enjoyed having students raise their hands to tell me that they heard when our pitch went down on the a capella piece, or when the vowel on "excelsis" is too wide. 
 
It seems that the work is never done... however, it's certainly much more fun when you can "see" students listening and "getting" it!  There are definitely more speechless rehearsals in our future, in fact, one more prior to our Christmas Concert on Dec. 11th.   When we move the risers to our Great Hall to rehearse the week before the concert, the students tend to get louder - partly because we're in a different location, and partly because they're excited.  I want to take that excitement and focus it entirely on listening and striving to achieve the highest level of performance we can. 
 
When we perform at our concert, I hope to be "speechless!".....
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