|Posted by Tiffany Chang on April 22, 2021 at 9:00 AM|
One of the things I do after each rehearsal is to reflect on what happened (what didn't go well, what went better than I thought, where did I miscalculate). I then try to find ways to recalibrate the plan and strategies moving forward (tweaking the rehearsal schedule, what kinds of notes do I have and how do I give them). I'm always frustrated by something and my goal is to relieve or find a solution for that frustration. This is normal for all conductors.
And as all conductors, I always find that I run out of rehearsal time!
So when we have multiple performances of the same show, I have the habit of relentlessly rehearsing even after the first show. And after each performance, I would practice my reflection and send notes via email or print them out and put it on the music stands at the next performance call. I might also make a list of notes that I thought would be more effective if delivered in person via a conversation. To me, striving to be better doesn't stop just because we are in performance mode.
Now that I think of it, a little part of me was always scared to do this. I'd think: would the musicians care? Would they think I'm micromanaging? Are they annoyed by this? Fortunately though, I would often be pleasantly surprised to hear that they appreciate the notes and they will do their best to make the music better.
This got me thinking. Musicians naturally want to continually improve. But in a group setting, why is every single musician not actively involved in this process? Why are we passive in waiting to be given notes, especially if when we get them, we develop a sense of agency right away?
The U.S. Army developed a debriefing process called the After Action Review (AAR), which takes place after a mission to identify and reflect on successes and failures in order to improve future performance. While the AAR in the military context often involves scenarios of life and death, this tool for group reflection has been widely adopted by teams in many industries. And I think the AAR could have a profound impact on large ensemble culture at any level.
Here's how it typically works. As a team, participants ask themselves:
"AARs should be carried out with an open spirit and no intent to blame. The American Army used the phrase 'leave your rank at the door' to optimize learning in this process." (from here)
I think it's worth considering this: when we play a solo recital, we engage in AAR-like reflection ourselves. When we play a big solo in orchestra, we may also do this. But we don't meet as a section or as an orchestra and talk about, "what went wrong in this tempo transition here today?" Or even, "Wow, this section was really awesome. What did we do?! How could we make it happen again tomorrow?"
In the sports context, many hours are spent in reviewing game footage--as a team, with the coach. It may not be all fun and the conversations are by design difficult, but it helps the team avoid the same mistakes in the future and come up with clear actionable steps to improve. It also helps rearticulate the shared goals and injects a renewed sense of purpose.
Large ensemble work is teamwork, so why don't we engage in these group reflections regularly? And if we do it at all, why is it often one-sided - with feedback coming only from the conductor or leader?
Conductors are expected to come up with the solutions in private, in their mind, and then report back - either immediately after a run-through or in the next rehearsal. Similarly, stage directors often sit with the entire cast and read through their list of notes. Sometimes a conversation ensues about a note, but not often. This interaction and collaboration between leader and group is the key, and we don't seem to value them.
I realized that the reflection I engage in after each rehearsal is in fact an AAR! But I do it alone. For a conductor to hash it out with input from the musicians is just not how we do things. That's seen as a waste of the musicians' time.
Well, I think this is only a waste if they're not involved in the hashing.
So what if we involved the musicians in the hashing via true group AARs? We could reap many benefits like the opportunities:
Afterall, feeling like there is progress and being a part of it could be the ultimate drivers for commitment and achievement.
Also, AARs don't have to occur only after a concert has finished nor do they need to be hours long.
We could do AARs after each rehearsal. Sure, everyone is busy and we barely have time for rehearsing. But I wonder what would happen if we are committed to incorporating this into how we operate as a large ensemble? How would that make our process more efficient so we do have time for rehearsing (instead of wasting time re-rehearsing).
AARs could also be as brief as asking two questions: What are 3 things that went well? What are 3 things that didn't go well? This could take 2 minutes and could be conducted in a rapid-fire fashion.
Often, the mere act of engaging in reflection is enough to rectify the problem or improve the performance. We don't even need to have a lengthy discussion about how we could improve--because sometimes we all know the basic answers to those questions (listen to the horn solo, pace the crescendo better, let's fix this bowing, etc). On the other hand, AARs can also reveal problems that have nothing to do with music (the draft keeps blowing the music off the stand, the light is too bright and in someone's eye, etc).
Big frustrations of the ensemble context are usually the churn of "show up and play" and not mattering or having no voice. While we all improve personally in private, the group dynamics and functionally often do not. And that is the frustrating part.
AARs can offer relief and solutions to these frustrations. A balanced diet of regular extended review sessions and quick huddle-type activities could reinvigorate ensemble culture for the better.
I always thought that maybe these group reflection tools like the AAR could come across as cheesy, soft, and something you can only do in a school "learning" context. Professional musicians would probably laugh it off, I thought. And that is perhaps true in some places.
But I realized that maybe we don't do them because we are afraid of vulnerability. We're afraid of having hard conversations about how we didn't quite measure up or we don't know what to do (we can have these conversations in our heads, but it's a totally different thing in front of everyone). We're afraid of staring at our problems (or people) in the face. We hide.
As a result, the group functionality stops growing, and we've become complacent or passive about driving that growth as part of the team. And we wonder why we don't feel engaged and fulfilled in our workplaces. We can't possibly feel fulfilled if we are not actively participating in moving things forward. AARs can help us be more accountable in linking lessons learned to definitive future actions.
In the military, you can't hide from an AAR because lives are at stake. Well, what's at stake for us? Whatever it is, I hope it's important enough for us to stop hiding.