Going Off-Book

The choral group I’ve been working with for these past four weeks received the unexpected gift of going off-book last night. Our conductor told us to sing all the pieces we will perform this weekend without printed music.

In stage performance disciplines, the use of a script or score in developing a performance or learning a body of work may be carried through to the actual performance, or the performer(s) may perform from memory. Going off-book moves the performer’s attention from the script to their support team: conductor, accompanists, stage manager, prompter, their fellow performers, and the audience. There is an implicit understanding that the script remains the authoritative template while allowing space for trust, improvisation, and meeting everyone’s needs in the moment.

When I create music without referring to a score, my fellow musicians and conductor are at the centre of my attention and I have cognitive space for the audience’s response to my work. When I speak without referring to notes, my audience is at the centre of my attention and I have freedom to adjust my delivery to meet their needs. When I act without a script, I create relational dynamics with my fellow actors in the moment. So long as I am secure in my rehearsed performance and my supporting people, my performance is more responsive, vibrant, connected.

We rely on scripts for some of our day to day work. We follow procedures, form and follow habits, meet well defined expectations without variation. The script ensures we respond consistently and perform in alignment with a metric that’s explicitly or implicitly specified. Scripts of many types are excellent tools that allow us to work efficiently.

Going off-book, when such a change is possible, provides us the means to be more responsive to a situation that may not be standard, to reach greater effectiveness in the moment. We rely more on our colleagues, customers, and supporting team. We have the space to find solutions within ourselves, outside the guard rails of a manual.

The gift of authority within limits enables us to excel in circumstances where our well written script falls flat. The world is complex. People’s needs don’t fit into tidy boxes, however we may try to make them do so. Responsive service to those around us, customer and colleague, manager and team member, relies on the capability of going off-book as needed.


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