What Your Notation Program Will Reveal to You, and What it Will Hide

I am of a generation to have gone through my student years, and indeed the start of my lecturing career, before notation programs were the normal way to write music. (I also wrote all my undergraduate essays by hand. Astonishing to think that I used to have handwriting that other people could read. Sort of; there were some complaints.) It used to take a lot more time to produce a score and parts back then. Oh my, producing parts was painful...but then again spare a thought for those musicians who lived before the invention of the photocopier.

Anyway, using a notation program is not only faster and more legible than writing everything out by hand, it gives you a different relationship with material. In particular, playing back what you’ve just written is fundamentally different when it isn’t you at the piano but a device that is not only external to you (and so will play what you actually wrote, not what you thought you wrote), but guaranteed to play it accurately.

So I am eternally grateful for the helpful people who invented this tool.

Exploring New Music with Affinity Show Choir

Action warm-up pic!Action warm-up pic!

Thursday evening took me up to Stockport to have an initial session with Affinity Show Choir on two new arrangements they have commissioned from me for LABBS Convention this autumn. We have a date in the diary for a full day on them next month, but they wanted and initial undergrowth-clearing session before then to get the big-picture issues identified so they could come into that day prepared and ready.

We’d already had a productive dialogue about how the songs wanted shaping during the commissioning process, as it was this package that inspired my post To Recreate or Reimagine?. Their director Andrew and I had had quite a long phone conversation that involved singing bits to each other to discuss phrasing, then he had put together a guide track to inform the person making learning tracks for him, and run that past me before commissioning the tracks. As a result I went in knowing that they had been learning the music from materials that made sense of the intended musical world, so we could get straight into refining the fit between musical detail and their expressive personality as a chorus.

On Replacement Cycles

Many years ago, someone told me that the average time that a professional comedian keeps any particular joke in their act is 7 years. Soon after that I went to see Hattie Hayridge for the second time – 7 years after I had first seen her. I recognised one joke from the previous set, and on the basis of that believed the factoid about joke replacement cycles.

I suspect that this is something that happens organically, as the comedian juggles the need for freshness with the need for well-honed material that can be relied upon to land well with an audience. Many jokes will come in and fall out again without making it past the tryout at a new material act; others may go on forever if they keep giving.

Winchester A Cappella Coaching Day

Traditional warm-up shotTraditional warm-up shotI spent Saturday working with Winchester A Cappella chorus on the music they will be taking to the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers Convention in the autumn. The chorus welcomed a new director last year after a period of some upheaval, and now that the working relationships are getting nicely settled in they were ready for some external input.

The ballad they are learning is one I arranged for a quartet back in 2011 without intending it for barbershop contest use, but the way that the Barbershop Harmony Society has deliberately relaxed its approach to judging style in order to encourage new repertoire in the last 6 years or so has moved it from the category of ‘not really quite barbershoppy enough’ to ‘actually, this will be fine’. So it will unexpectedly bump up my tally of contest premieres come October.

Building the Musical Toolkit with the Belles

bellesjul19I spent last Saturday with my friends at the Belles of Three Spires. On the face of it, we were working on the two songs they will be taking to LABBS Convention in October, but the more fundamental remit I had been given was to help their director Lucy develop the collection of musical concepts she uses with the chorus. It’s all very well feeling that the music should go a certain way, she pointed out, or even being advised to shape it like that, but she wants to know why.

In giving me this remit, she framed the goal explicitly in terms of extending her own skill set as director; if the chorus also understood the concepts, that’s great, but the main point was to leave her with ideas she could use to inform her musical decisions and judgements. As a result I found myself using more technical terms than I usually might, which was an interesting experience to come so soon after my post about rehearsal/coaching lexicons and my relationship with technical language.

Director Coaching with Junction 14

Adjusting the conducting plane:: "Hold your plate of music low enough that you can pile it high and still see over the profiteroles"Adjusting the conducting plane:: "Hold your plate of music low enough that you can pile it high and still see over the profiteroles"Thursday evening took me down to Milton Keynes to work with the directing team of Junction 14 chorus. Both MD Hannah and her assistant Debbie have been regular participants in LABBS director training events, but they were after the extra depth and personalisation you get from being coached as a director along with the singers you work with regularly. This bring not only more one-to-one time, but the chance to enrol the chorus into the process of developing their directors.

For the truism that what a director does is directly mirrored by the chorus is balanced by a less often articulated truth that much of what a director habitually does is shaped by their singers. There are all kinds of interesting co-dependencies between a conductor and their ensemble, some of which are really helpful, others counter-productive. You can re-set the latter more readily by working with both ends of the relationship at the same time.

Developing Our Lexicon

One segment of our working brain-dumpOne segment of our working brain-dumpToday’s title is a direct quote from the inimitable Mo Field, who as Guest Educator at the LABBS Directors Weekend last summer, invited the assembled chorus directors to consider the kinds of vocabulary and turns of phrase they habitually use with their singers. What kind of values do they encode? What underlying messages do they give about what you care about?

Re-reading Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code earlier this year gave a nice cross-reference to his analysis of successful coaches. Distinctive and pithy catch-phrases that capture central principles of praxis are one of the characteristic behaviours that he documents.

Mo Field on the Needs of an Audience

One of the many things that ended up in my notebook under the heading ‘To think about later’ from LABBS Harmony College back in April was something guest educator Mo Field said about what an audience is looking for in performers. It now appears to be later, and my brain is ready to think about it.

In summary, the three things she listed were:

1. Is this competent? (Can they trust your skill-set?)
2. Can they believe you? (Are you saying something that matters to you?)
3. Is it relatable? (Are you saying anything that matters to them?)

The first thing to note is that these are both sequential and hierarchical. Until the listener is reassured that they’re safe in your hands from the perspective of your capacity to operate your instrument/ensemble, they’re not going to have any attention to give to the content of what you do. Assuming you are indeed competent, they’ll move on pretty much immediately to engage with your content.

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