The usual chorus social after rehearsal back on the 19th November 2013, included a lively discussion on Cottontown’s progress over recent years, the factors that influenced it, and our hopes for BHS 2014 International Convention in Las Vegas in 2014. The coaching we’ve all been fortunate enough to receive has obviously played a key role. However, life has also shown me that even top quality education is only effective when the student is willing and able to make use of the gift.

As we all chatted, our MD Neil Firth stressed how important it is that the singer appreciates why particular techniques are taught, rather than just accepting them at face value. We recalled how some in the chorus had not taken easily to ‘tall’ singing, bubbling, breath before tone, using the ‘facial mask’, and all those other imaginative ideas which take us beyond the basics.

This all resonated with me (sorry, no pun intended!) as, only two days previously at BABS prelims, my then quartet’s post-performance evaluation had touched on the subject of ‘Conscious Competence’, a forty-year-old model of how human beings learn a new skill. It argues that four sequential stages are involved. Recently this has been brought up during an intensive chorus performance coaching session with David McEachern.

Stage 1 In the initial stage of ‘Unconscious Incompetence’, a person doesn’t understand or know how to do something. Not only that, but they do not recognise this inability within themselves, and they may also deny the usefulness of the new skill being acquired. The person must acknowledge the value of the new skill, and their own lack of it, before progressing to the next stage, and the time taken to do this depends on the individual’s stimulus to want to learn, do more and do it better.

Stage 2 is ‘Conscious Incompetence’. Although the person lacks understanding or knowledge of how to do something, he or she recognises this lack and appreciates the value of a new skill in addressing the situation. Freedom to make mistakes can be part & parcel of the learning process at this stage.

Stage 3 is ‘Conscious Competence’. The person understands or knows how to do something now, but demonstrating the technique requires concentration. There is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill and it may have to be broken down into repeatedly executed steps.

Stage 4 is ‘Unconscious Competence’. The skill has been practised so much that it has become ‘second nature’, even while executing another task (the old ‘patting your head whilst rubbing your stomach’ trick). The person may even be able to pass the skill on to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.


Does anything in the above model strike a chord with you (another pun, apologies) when you put it in the context of your barbershop singing and performance experiences?

In Stage 1 some years ago were the handful of Cottontown singers who, no names mentioned, couldn’t see the point of Royce Ferguson’s toolkit of novel and intensive coaching ideas. Perhaps they were just unaware that they could improve for the overall betterment of the chorus.

We gradually moved into a Stage 2 where we were convinced of Royce’s benefit, yet we didn’t always know how to make the changes he wanted inside our bodies and minds. Some brave souls admitted this and became guinea pigs in front of the chorus – and then the rest of us listened, mesmerised, as Royce worked his magic on the victims!

In stage 3, we became comfortable that we could do what Royce was asking. But you couldn’t fail to notice that our technique slipped back after he left us, and Neil had to continually put us through our paces to get it back again.

Stage 4? At BABS Convention in Harrogate or Bournmouth, the very highest scores will be awarded to those who know what it means to be at Stage 4. ‘Unconscious Competence’ is the spine-tingling performance, where a chorus or quartet will make technique seem transparent, where flow just happens, choreography adds to singing rather than harming it, and artistry shines through.

Ours is a chorus of question doers, how much can we do, what can we do better? This is always a constant dialogue piece in internal communications:

The answer, one each occasion is about practicing so much, not until we got it right, but until we cannot get it wrong; commitment to every Tuesday (rehearsal) and the special weekends of vocal and performance coaching; bubbling on the way to warm-up not just at the warm-up; learning songs properly at home; and the list goes on.

Those in the chorus that ask how they can do more or better are normally those that they have dialled into the final fourth phase of ‘Unconscious Competence’. In these final few months before our next convention, the coaching is always needed, but the path to convention, or the next sing out complete with a set list from our extensive repertoire, will really be about how committed the students are in applying themselves to the gift that the coach has to offer.

Updated: 26/03/2016

Gary Roussak

Gary has been with the Cottontown Chorus for 9 years he sings Baritone. He is also the Tenore with Three N’ Easy. Before falling in love with Barbershop, Gary sang tenor in a classical choir for 15 years.