Not too long ago, I read somewhere that “an amateur is someone who practices until they get it right; a professional is someone who practices until they can’t get it wrong.”
That got me thinking about perfection, polishing, and the nature of practice. Specifically, about two aspects:
1: There are two kinds of practice.
There is what most of us think of as practice – that is, practice for performance, which is really polishing, or perfecting; then there’s practice for growth, where you work to add new skills outside of a performance context. In my experience, learning to practice in that second sense is one of the more challenging disciplines we face as musicians.
As a conductor, the challenge is finding that all-important balance between the two. Individual artists generally practice regularly, whether they have a specific goal or not. Choirs, on the other hand, tend to rehearse to performance, and no more. So finding that balance means finding time and ways to work on general skills, even when you’re under the gun. Most people will tell you that obviously, you need to work on skills through your work on repertoire…which leads me to my next point.
2. You have to practice it right more than you practice it wrong.
Think about it: you’re in a rehearsal, and the choir is working on getting a particular piece right. They keep singing and tweaking, tweaking and singing, and each time, it’s a little closer. Then finally, boom! It’s finally what they were striving for! And the director moves on to the next thing.
That choir has just sung that piece maybe five, or seven, or a dozen times incorrectly; they’ve sung it correctly just once. What are the odds that it will be correct next time they meet? To which way of singing it will their muscle memory instinctively and inevitably guide them?
If you want to ingrain an effect – phrasing, dynamics, or a particular approach to diction, for instance – into your choir, then you you must rehearse it until it is right every time. If you want to ingrain the skill needed to execute that effect in a context other than that specific piece, then you must rehearse it a great deal more, and in a number of different ways. Otherwise, you will have to reinvent the wheel once again with every piece you program