The “at” / “in” distinction

When I was in college, I sang quite a bit. (I still do, actually, but not nearly as much as before .) At one point, I was singing with five different choirs on a weekly basis, which made for many, many hours spent in rehearsal each week.

Now, some conductors are worse offenders than others when it comes to rehearsal scheduling; the best try to maintain a reasonable ratio between minutes of practice and minutes of performance. So, for example, if you’ll be conducting Mozart’s Mass in c Minor, in which the combined chorus movements come out to roughly 35-40 minutes of singing, you would want to work out some arrangement wherein you have (say) 30 minutes of practice for every 1 minute of performance—for a total, in this case, of about 20 hours of rehearsal.

But one of my conductors was, shall we say… not so good at maintaining healthy practice-to-performance ratios. He would usually start at around an hour per minute.

So, as you can imagine, my friends and I in that fine choir often found ourselves looking around the room and wondering how we could possibly make it through another 45 minutes of hammering out the tenor line on the Kyrie (glorious though it was).

One of my friends, though, had the edge on the rest of us. He had figured out a way to make the time pass much more quickly and enjoyably for him, and it was all due to a little trick he had the courtesy to share with me one day when I was particularly frustrated.

“What you have to do,” he said, “is stop being in rehearsal and start being at rehearsal.”

The look on my face, no doubt, showed him that I had no idea what he was on about.

He went on: “The reason we all get so stir crazy is that we all focus too much on being in rehearsal. We let ourselves become too immersed in the whole thing. We think about how long we’ve been here, how much time remains on the clock, how much work we’ve done on this piece and how much has yet to be done. We get so wrapped up in rehearsal that we lose our heads in the game. You need to get out of that mentality.”

“Alright,” said I, “so what’s the alternative?”

“The alternative,” he explained, “is being at rehearsal. Think of it this way: you’re not here because you have to be; you’re a guest. This rehearsal is an exhibit at a museum, and you’re walking through it. It just happens to be here in front of you, and you get to observe it. Everything going on around you is a show, and you have the opportunity to watch. Step outside of it! Let yourself see how funny it can be when we all take ourselves so seriously.”

Well, intelligent though my friend certainly was, I was hesitant to try this little trick. It all sounded like mind games to me.

But it works!

I can’t tell you the difference that it made for me to try on for size this slight shift in perspective. I only wished that I had tried it sooner! So many details suddenly jumped to the fore, and at several points I had to stop myself from bursting out laughing.

When I started to look at something like this rehearsal from the perspective of an attendee rather than a participant, I allowed myself to question the ordinary and consider everyday elements in a new light. The conductor’s high-strung approach, previously onerous, became almost comical. The tenors’ inability to get their part (sorry tenors, but as a bass, I’m obliged to pick on you) was enough to drive me crazy before, but now I viewed it as a game. (Who would win? The tenors or the conductor?)

At one point early in the rehearsal, when we were running a full movement, I looked around and saw everyone else so enmeshed in the music and the moment—bobbing along with the rhythm, all eyes on the conductor—and I felt like I had successfully stepped outside the system for a moment. At another point much later in the evening, while the conductor was talking very excitedly about something, I saw that these same attentive faces were now looking every which way—some whispering to their neighbors, some glancing at their phones, others staring off into space—and I laughed to myself at the thought that a group that had begun the evening with such alacrity had (no doubt as a result of overwork) devolved into such a rambling bovine state.

In addition, I began to notice all of the little quirks and idiosyncrasies I had failed to observe when I was so inwardly focused. How does that soprano open her mouth so wide without hurting the rest of her face? How does the conductor fail to notice that he’s perilously close to losing his pants? Is that alto in the front row aware of the expression she makes every time she hits a wrong note? And my, how everyone takes themselves so seriously here!

Yes, being at rehearsal rather than in rehearsal allowed me to explore the comic side of life from the (relative) comfort of my very own folding chair.

I encourage you to try it the next time you’re in a drawn-out group setting that allows you to observe a decent number of people. If you’re a student, try it in class. If you’re an executive, try it in a board meeting. Try it at a sporting event, or the opera, or on the bus, or at church.

No, actually, don’t try it at church.

Wherever you try it, though, just remember one thing: when observing the “at” / “in” distinction, you can’t reveal how much fun you’re having. If you do, everyone will want to try it…

But this is one game that’s only fun if you’re playing it alone.


1 Comment

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One response to “The “at” / “in” distinction

  1. Paul

    I disagree with your last two statements. It is hilariously funny in church when the priest all of a sudden reminds you of the priest from Spaceballs. Secondly it is doubly funning to share this revelation with your friend prone to giggle fits while still during the sermon, and then watch them struggle to keep their mouth shut the rest of the service.

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