Last summer, I had the privilege of attending the Choral Director’s Workshop attached to the Oregon Bach Festival. Several sessions were devoted to tweaking one’s conducting.  Dr. Sharon Paul, of the University of Oregon, led the sessions which consisted of each participant conducting a piece and receiving feedback.  In preparation, I felt confident that my conducting technique was solid but was a bit anxious as to what idiosyncrasies had crept in, after all, I had been conducting for over 25 years!

Find a Coach

The process followed this sequence.  The workshop participant would conduct through a piece of their own selecting followed by suggestions from Dr. Paul, followed by trying the feedback out on a section of music, and then discussion on how that worked and felt. I would have never guessed the comment Dr. Paul made about my conducting:  “Are you aware that you lean forward toward the choir a lot when you conduct?”  I had no idea. This revelation has led to a heightened awareness in my conducting through


this past year. Many times I became of aware that was leaning forward and would correct it.  In Perfect Practice, the authors site the book “Moonwalking with Einstein” by Joshua Foer.  Foer describes how many arrive at an “OK Plateau” where one stops improving.  In that session in Oregon, I realized I was camped out on  the ” OK Conducting Plateau.”  Foer writes “The secret to improving at a skill is to retain some degree of conscious control over it while practicing to force oneself to stay out of autopilot”  Feedback is a key ingredient to self-improvement. I was on autopilot.  Thank you Dr. Paul for awakening my awareness.

Talk less and Do More

The music studio and rehearsal are perfect for teaching and practicing feedback.  I am adding this to the list of things students learn in choir. A person who seeks out feedback and applies it is a person that will continue to learn and grow throughout their career.  Sometimes I refer to this trait as “being coachable.”  A typical voice lesson or choir rehearsal will follow the feedback loop suggested by Perfect Practice:

1. Practice

2. Feedback

3. Do over (repractice using the feedback)

4. Possibly do this multiple times

5. Reflect.

Reflect Last

Note where “reflection” happens. Last.  The authors point out that reflection/discussion many times is step 3 and that is where it ends — the student goes home.   In the perfect music world,  the rehearsal  moves from step 2 to 3 quick and without discussion quite naturally.  A good rehearsal technician will be adept at short feedback statements followed by immediate practice. A frequent fault of rookie choral directors is explaining too much. They simply talk to much during the rehearsal.  The authors point out that feedback practiced correctly can be an empowering tool leading to team building — musicians call it ensemble:  “Practicing using feedback before they’ve had a chance to rationalize it away can produce a demonstrably different result—and make people believe in their own power to shape their world”

Authors Summary of Rule #23

  • Using feedback is a different skill from accepting it. Build a culture where people get better at using feedback by doing it a lot. 
  • Cause people to practice putting their feedback to use as quickly as possible—by sending them back to the front of the line, for example.
  •  Observing the use of feedback right away helps managers and coaches see whether their advice works.

Authors Summary of Rule #24

No Excuses

Are you a practice avoid-er? I confess I have used this a time or two back in my college voice lesson days; Dr. Davis and I had some great discussions.  Those more in depth discussion sometimes were appropriate and I learned more of the “why” and “workings” of good vocal technique. This information has helped me be a better teacher of voice but sometimes, actually many times, I just needed to practice his suggestion … again and again.  My comments and questions were a ploy of avoidance. Most of the time, what he was asking were difficult changes and I was thinking too much about it, reflecting before practice, and concluding I can’t do it.  Perfect Practice observes that “participants unintentionally (or otherwise) use reflection and earnest conversation as a way to avoid practice.”   Guilty as charged.

Authors Summary of Rule #23

  • Reflection, while often worthwhile, can become a barrier to further practice. Ask people to apply feedback first, then reflect on it.
  • When participants apply feedback and then reflect, they have more data to use in reflecting on the value of the feedback. 
  • Try using the phrase “Whose turn is it?” to respond to an excess of discussion when more practice would be prefe

Share this post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Johnny Matlock 217 West 24th Street Hays, Kansas 67601 Phone: 785-623-1412 Email: