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Click to the Music

Karen clicks and sings

Clicker training is NOT just about the clicker and marking behavior. That is very powerful, and it’s the first thing people learn. However, you’re not really doing the whole thing until you absorb and automatically use the underlying principles.

conductor hands

Thirty years ago, as a novice alto in the Honolulu Symphony chorus, I noticed some of the principles I’d learned as a dolphin trainer being used by our conductor, Robert LaMarchina, and by some guest conductors, too. I wrote a piece about it for Psychology Today: “Symphony conductors would make good porpoise trainers.” The conductors I observed and interviewed for my article didn’t know the underlying principles. They just figured out what worked for them; because they were highly intelligent and pressed for time they were pretty efficient.

This year, three decades later, I joined a classical chorus in Boston. At the second rehearsal I noticed that our conductor, Kevin Leong, was back-chaining the music—teaching us the last section first, and then the next-to-last, and so on. This is by far the best way to learn and remember a piece, but it’s also quite counter-intuitive; nobody just thinks it up. Had he read Don’t Shoot the Dog? I tweeted about that, and heard instantly from choristers around the country who said their music directors back-chain, too.

Wow! Clicker principles in the music world! I started a tweet marathon.

  1. I'm in Harvard/Radcliffe Chorus, 170 voices, conductor Kevin Leong. Preparing Haydn’s Maria Theresa Mass for Dec. concert. (more to come)
  2. Tonight is rehearsal #11. 1st time we will sing it thru! The trainer has back-chained every section. Click!
  3. As in TAGteach, conductor never corrects. He instructs for one small bit, maybe one bar or one note. We sing. He clicks--"Good!"
  4. “Basses, that A is flat. Sing UP” (points). They sing two bars. He points during A (cue) and they sing it right. Click: “GOOD!”
  5. If the note is still flat, he breaks it down further: sing note before, then the A. Is it better? "Good!"
  6. Another clicker-ish trick: sing the whole bar, and STOP on the offending note and hold it, until everyone has it right. THEN click.
  7. Now the error is in the sopranos and they're holding on a high A sharp. 52 people singing that note--my hearing aids freak out.
  8. Pay attention to success, not failure. 33 hrs of rehearsal and not one “No,” “Wrong,” or anger. Just retrain errors, click, go on. Yay!
  9. RT @CIA_k9s: Very good techniques—wish all conductors used them! :) YOU BET, Laura, me too. And so MANY click-ish moves! More soon.
  10. Break it down: We sing na na na instead of words, focus on tempo and notes only. For WEEKS. Result: Accurate rhythm and pitch.
  11. Add distractions one at a time: sing do do do, not na na na. How annoying. Why? Because brain is stretched. Result: more accuracy.
  12. Tonight, assigned seats, TASB cards on the chairs (Tenor, Alto, Soprano, Bass).. No other alto within earshot, I’m on my own. Yikes!
  13. Conductor: “Altos, I can’t hear you. Where are you?” 50 scattered hands go up. “You’re supposed to sing, you know…” Yeah, but…
  14. I have a bass on each side and sopranos front and back. Hardest three hours ever! Comfort: basses are sweating too.
  15. By next rehearsal singing “alone” is easier. I’m entering on time and on pitch without trying. Confidence!
  16. Harvard’s Sanders Theater. Ornate carved oak pews, balconies, stairs, elaborate oak dome. Like being inside a music box.
  17. First orchestra rehearsal: Pro Arte, 25 players. “You guys are GREAT,” I told one after. “Chorus is too,” he said. “Well rehearsed.” Yes!
  18. Performance. Everyone looks great. Nearly full house. Vivid performance, intricate music conquered, cheers and whistles. Yay!
  19. Harvard neuro friend said “performance was extraordinary” for a non-pro choir. Was it our high IQs? No. It was clicker principles in action.
  20. All last night and all day today, bits of Haydn’s Mass are rattling in my brain. Kyrie. Sanctus. Gloria. Credo. Argh!
  21. Kevin Leong, HRC conductor, e-mails “Can’t get the dona nobis pacem out of my head.” Not just us newbies getting ear worms!
  22. Cure: Spring concert rehearsals start tomorrow. Stravinsky. Yikes!

My review

I’ve sung in a bunch of choruses, including in symphony concerts and opera performances. None of them ever reached this level of precision and synchrony. I’ve never worked so hard on a piece of music. Like a clicker dog, I’m happy! This stuff really works! And I’ve just watched it spreading into new parts of our world.

Merry Christmas!

About the author
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Karen Pryor is the founder and CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy. She is the author of many books, including Don't Shoot the Dog and Reaching the Animal Mind. Learn more about Karen Pryor or read Karen's Letters online.

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