My Take on In-Game Adjustments, Courtesy of Bruce Arians


I chose that particular picture both because it illustrates my point and because we had an awesome caption contest with it last season.  If somebody can remember what post that was in, please send me the link and I'll insert it here.  At any rate, in this morning's Trib was the following quote from Bruce Arians, on playcalling in the wake of constant flux on the O line, particularly in-game injuries:

You can't change what your game plan is, you just expect the next guy to step up and play, and it gets taxing after a while when it happens every damn week.

I enjoyed this quote, because it was a lot more real than much of what you see.  Were I him, it might have been worded a bit more strongly.  He's obviously had more practice talking to the media than I have.  But it got me to thinking about game plan adjustments.  How do you adjust not just to what you see from the opposing team (something for which he has come under a good deal of scrutiny for around here) but when your personnel is constantly shifting?  How would I, as a choral director, deal with this?

Since choral music is not a contact sport, we don't deal with many in-game injuries, although you might be surprised.  I remember a performance of a long, seriously boring Handel piece in which I was involved.  And honestly, I love Handel and all, but he was having an off month when he penned this one.  I was not the conductor for this performance, but the organist, and was in sort of a pit to one side of the stage.  The chorus of about 90 people was on risers on the stage above me.  This piece was largely a bunch of long solos punctuated by loud choruses, so the singers were just standing there a lot more than they were singing.  It was hot - an early summer day in a space with no air conditioning.  One of the altos on the top row of risers fainted during one of the interminable solos and plunged more or less into my lap.  Naturally, the conductor, acting as referee, called an injury time out, and once we revived her, the victim was led off the field, fortunately none the worse for wear.  It did put me off my game a bit, however, as I couldn't help but wonder who else would fall on me.  

 

This isn't a typical occurrence, although it does happen from time to time.  But it isn't at all uncommon to lose one or more singers to illness, flight delays, and other forces of nature and transportation, particularly for a winter performance.  In the above-mentioned chorus of 90 people it isn't such a big deal, but in my 24 voice chorus, a group in which only three people may be singing a given part, it matters a good deal more.  And if you lose a soloist, it's even worse.  When you know beforehand, it helps a bit, but it is always difficult to a degree. Like the Steelers, the standard of expectation doesn't change, but the reality is that you might have to make adjustments.  Because losing a person means that the whole balance changes. 

Occasionally we will get a substitute, depending on the situation, but, like a relatively untested bench-warmer, we aren't sure what we've got until they are out there in the performance.  Although the substitute may be a terrific singer in general terms, they are not going to be familiar with the music and with the other singers in the same way as the person who had been practicing with us for the full season.  I don't have the luxury of having a "bench," but even if I did, the singers on it would not have the number of 'reps' that the regular singer did, even if they knew the playbook.  So any time you lose a 'starter' you are going to lose something in terms of comfort.  That isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it can put everyone else around on notice that they need to be especially sharp (not in the musical sense, of course!) to help out the sub.

What happens if you lose a soloist?  Well, just like the Steelers, somebody else has to move into the role, whether it is Byron playing for Ben or Mike moving into the #1 receiver position.  Everyone is still playing football, (or singing Monteverdi,) but the whole dynamic is going to change.  Again, that doesn't necessarily mean that things will be worse, just that they are going to be different, and that an element of uncertainty has been inserted into the process.

What about adjusting one's game plan for the opposition?  Since singing is not typically a competitive sport you would think there would be no application, but you would be wrong in one sense, at least for a group like mine.  We perform in a number of different venues, some of which we know better than others.  All halls have flaws, whether it be creaking radiators, odd acoustics that make it difficult to hear the people around you, poor lighting which makes it difficult to see the music, or what have you.  Like the grass at Heinz Field, these things are problems, but they are known problems.  When you are the 'visiting team' at a venue you don't know, surprises await you, whether that be that your coaching box only has the jumbotron video feed or whether that be that when you arrive the place is locked up tight and you have to break into the building to set up and get ready for the performance.  (Both illustrations are true, BTW.)  Typically we have a half hour in an unfamiliar venue to try it out, figure out what the problems are, and work out how to deal with them.  We might stand in a slightly different formation, rush to the corner drugstore to buy everybody booklights, call up someone who lives nearby to borrow a pair of tux pants, or whatever.  (Because as this demonstrates, some of the problems you encounter have to do with your players being human beings.) 

Then you have the crowd.  When you are accustomed to playing outside, playing in a noisy dome is going to make a difference.  When you are the opposing team and you can't hear yourself think, and you know that the noise is being created by people who wish you ill, it gets under your skin.  We don't have a lot of people that come to our concerts under duress (although one of our singers whose husband hates classical music came to a concert because it was her birthday, but he wore his beer hat as a protest.)  Whether it is small children who would really like to be elsewhere, people who probably should be in a pulmonary ward instead of at a concert, or those who forget to turn off their cell phones, there are unexpected crowd noises that interfere with ones concentration.  And the size and enthusiasm of the crowd makes a difference as well - a great difference, in fact.  If you are singing in a hall that holds 1000 people and 250 people are there, they tend to spread out, and the 'crowd' energy is dissipated.  If you take that same 250 people and put them in a hall that holds 225 people, all of a sudden the energy is completely different.  And the singers (and me, for that matter) are affected by that - we can't help it.  We give the same effort whether we outnumber the audience (as happened once when a huge snowstorm began an hour before our performance) or whether we are singing for a full house of enthusiastic patrons, but the latter adds an excitement to the performance that can't be dredged up from within ourselves.  I can't imagine what it would be like to go into a hostile field, although I suppose that football players are used to that.  But being accustomed to something and not being affected by it are two different things.

But back to the original question, how much can one adjust one's game plan during a game?   Well, honestly, there are small things that can be done.  I can change my directing style.  I can move people around a bit, although that is a slippery slope, as too much change from how people have rehearsed can create uncertainty and hesitation that can be fatal. I can ask certain sections, or certain people, to sing louder or softer.  But there isn't a tremendous amount you can do.  In theory we have a 'playbook' (repertoire list) of almost a thousand pieces from the time the group was formed in 1974.  But in practice we have a set of pieces that we are prepared to perform that day, and that's about it.  We can shuffle the order, we can drop one, we could add an organ solo, maybe, or whatever.  But what we've practiced and prepared necessarily has to form the core of what we do.

Admittedly we have a lot fewer practices than the Steelers.  We practice once a week for 2 1/2 hours, and have around 7 or 8 of these before a set of concerts.  No training camp, no minicamp, no off-season workouts.  Although my singers are paid, the fact that my total budget for the year is less than 1/5 of the rookie minimum for this season tells you that this isn't a full-time job for anyone, me included.  But the issues are similar, and while the coaching staff has a bigger playbook to work with, I would assume that they are also well aware of things that affect what portion of the playbook they can successfully utilize.  Shuffling the O line because of in-game injuries may mean that, despite the fact that the opposing team is doing a good job stuffing the run, you've got to run a lot anyhow, because the line is not going to be able to hold the pass rush as it is currently constituted.  Or maybe you can see that what would be most likely to succeed would be a bunch of short quick crossing routes, but the WRs that you have available aren't very reliable at that yet, or your QB doesn't trust them yet, or whatever. 

On the defensive side, while you might want to move your DBs up closer to the line, you know that with this particular opposing QB if you do that, you are going to get burned with some deep throws, so the best thing is to play back and hope he makes a mistake.  Or whatever.  I haven't coached football, obviously, but I deal with similar issues all the time.  On the surface they may seem different, but at the heart they are all about how well you know your players.  What are they typically capable of?  What, more to the point, are they probably capable of today, because of lingering injuries, personal issues, and so on? How are you going to adapt?  Because the standard of expectation may not change, but the reality is that people change constantly.  I suspect that the best coaches have the finger on the pulse of their players, whether you are talking about the coaches that seem like total SOBs or the ones that seem to be more human.  Learning what your team needs to succeed is half the battle.  Unfortunately, part of it is somewhat of a crap shoot.  On the whole, I'm much happier to deal with music fans than with football fans, and I'll bet there are days that Bruce Arians, or any coach for that matter, would trade with me in a heartbeat.

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