Go to school on someone else’s dime

One of the most valuable things I ever learned from RD Mathey at BGSU was how to go to school on someone else’s dime. By this I mean I learned how to watch, listen, and think analytically every second of rehearsal. Let’s take a look at how getting into this mindset can help singers. If you are in a traditional choral setting, think director and choir. If you are in a self-run a cappella group, it still applies. Even if you don’t have a formal “director,” someone has to be steering the ship, right?

Some common ways “going to school on someone else’s dime” helps:

1) But I’m doing it – Most singers think they are doing what the director wants them to. They mean well, so they think their intention translates into action. Unfortunately, most singers don’t go far enough, fast enough. When they watch the director working with another section, they can clearly see how other singers think they’re doing “it,” but really aren’t doing “it” enough. When the director finally coaxes the magical “enough” out of those singers, others who are paying attention should notice and gain valuable insight into their own technique.

2) What do I hear / how would I fix that? – this is a great game to play in rehearsal. The director works with one section and the rest of the choir’s job is to listen along, constantly thinking “what is the director going to say?” The director could ask the choir “what did you hear? What am I going to say?” In advanced choirs, the director could even ask, “how could we fix that?” In short, spend some of your time in rehearsal pretending you are the assistant director, and will be taking over tomorrow’s rehearsal. By constantly thinking in an such analytical and critical manner, you will sharpen your ears and your musical instincts.

3) Music reading (rhythm and pitch) – During rehearsal, music is flying around constantly. Singers who are temporarily not singing can still learn a lot by following along in the score. Many singers only look at their music when they are singing (sometimes not even then). By tracking music while another section rehearses, you have a chance to reinforce basic reading skills. If the section is doing well, you can watch the “dots” go by and hear the correct matching sounds. If the section makes a mistake, you have a chance to notice and then hear the correction. Much of learning comes from repetition – time spent doing. The toughest skill for any singer is learning how to read. Don’t miss a second you could hone your musical literacy.

Furthermore, when you are not singing, you could internally count and try to fit your part in against the section being rehearsed. If it is a homophonic section, you could “mouth” along with those who are singing, practicing rhythms and vowel shapes even while silent.

4) Do vs. assessSimply put, you cannot do something and assess it at the same time. By going to school on someone else’s dime, you get the opportunity to learn about the music, the director’s tastes, vocal technique, and much more while not doing. This means that when you do, you can focus on trying to the best of your ability without constantly thinking “how am I doing?” You can simply do, and let the director help you improve. It’s time for others to learn watching you.

5) Bottom line – EOEEverything Overlaps Everything. Singing is a complex skill, one that requires mental acumen and physical coordination. Getting all the components to line up together to produce awesome singing is difficult. Period. Any chance you have to improve any little piece of this giant puzzle just puts you closer to that end-goal of awesome singing.

What are the by-products of “going to school on someone else’s dime?”

1) Leadership – You become better equipped to be an internal leader, either by performing better or even running sectionals. You know what the director wants. You know what the end product is supposed to be. You know the tools to make it so.

2) Reinforcement – you will get much more insight into vocal technique and practice at music reading, which ultimately helps you grow faster into the singer you wish to be.

3) Building habits

a) Increases your mental stamina / lengthens the period of your mental focus

b) Improves internal culture: singers are better able to diagnose their own performance

c) Reinforces the value of the coach/director

d) Builds analytical mindset in singers

e) Helps release people from the do / assess trap that impedes performance

So here’s your closing visual metaphor… remember in science when you were asked to soak a celery stalk in red water? You let it sit overnight and the next day the red water had been absorbed into the celery, giving it a red hue. Those who are only active in rehearsal while it’s their turn to sing are like a celery stalk that has been splashed with red water. Those who “go to school on someone else’s dime” are the ones who soak up all that red water until it’s just part of who they are.




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