Adapting to Context on the abcd Conducting Skills Day

The group's analysis of the conductor's rolesThe group's analysis of the conductor's roles

Last Saturday gave me the treat of working in my home city, leading a Basic Conducting Skills day on behalf of the Association of British Choral Directors. I love events like these; the participants are always so engaged and dedicated to their singers, and so supportive to each other as they learn together. And they always come with such great questions, straight from coalface of practical problem-solving.

One of the things I found interesting about these questions was the way the answer so often included the caveat that best choice often depends on the context. The size of choir, the genre expectations and musical habits that come from them, the needs of that particular collective of singers. The decision about how to proceed then becomes a matter of figuring out the range of possibilities, and locating your particular circumstances within it.

Here are some of the subjects they raised:

Musicking with the White Rosettes

WRjun19

This may prove to be a tricky post to write. Not for any emotional complications – it tells of an entirely cheerful and purposeful occasion – nor for conceptual conundrums – we all knew what we were doing and we did it well. The problem is the entirely practical one of how do I write an account of a coaching session that was pretty much entirely about specific musical detail without actually talking about the music?

I run into this problem to an extent every time I go to coach an ensemble on a new arrangement that they will want to reveal at some point in the future, but there’s usually some generalisable technical points to distract you with while I’m avoiding naming the song. Is vagueblogging a thing?

And of course it would be unthinkable to go and work with the UK’s most consistently successful barbershop chorus and not blog about it. That would be silly.

Myelinating with Mo

The recent LABBS Harmony College brought lots of interesting resonances with the blog post I had scheduled to come out the day after I got home from it. This is not entirely a coincidence of course – at the time I was writing about practice processes and shunting between local and global, I was also refining my notes for a session on rehearsal techniques that focused on Daniel Coyle’s Talent Code, and its accounts of how we acquire skills.

But our guest educator Mo Field also gave us a lot to enrich that understanding. Her coaching under glass session with Soundhouse and Avalon quartets on Saturday evening was a masterclass in myelination. She took very little time before she started to delve deep, paring down to two singers each on a single note and spending a long time there before building up to four singers and three or notes at a go. Then when she pulled the camera back to take in wider stretches of music, the singers were able to continue accessing the new paths they had gone down as they had spent long enough there to get them at least partly established.

Continuing the Journey with Norwich Harmony

Obligatory warm-up action picObligatory warm-up action pic

One of the joyful things about being invited to work with a group several times over the course of a few years is the opportunity to see them develop. I have visited Norwich Harmony in late Spring or early summer before, but I don’t recall hearing them sounding so assured on the music they are preparing for the autumn at this stage previously. It wasn’t just that the singing was clean and resonant, with very few details getting smudged, it was that everyone seemed up-for-it and undaunted by any challenge I threw at them. This is a very satisfying way to spend a Saturday.

I asked their director Alison Thompson to what she could attribute this upgrade in achievement, and she talked through various areas of specific technical skill they had been working on. Behind this, though, were more fundamental points: having the confidence that she had found an approach that would work for them, and being relentless in her pursuit of them.

BABS Convention 2019

Mixed chorus champions: A Kind of MagicMixed chorus champions: A Kind of Magic

The last weekend in May is the traditional spot in the calendar for the British Association of Barbershop Singers to hold their national Convention. This year we were back in Bournemouth, the town in which I started my barbershop journey 23 years ago.

The headline change was that this is the first year that the mixed chorus contest has been fully under the BABS umbrella. Indeed, from the way the contest was introduced you’d think that BABS had invented the genre: they claimed that of the 10 entrants, half were newly formed to enter, and half were collaborations between existing clubs. (It reminded me of the way that when the Barbershop Harmony Society announced their new inclusive strategic vision they made it sound like they’d just invented women.)

Thinking Faces

I recently reread Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code to refresh myself before teaching a class that drew on it at LABBS Harmony College. The great thing about rereading things is that you can suddenly spot all kinds of cross-references with things you have read since – connections which, by definition, weren’t available to you the first time you read it.

One of the points that leapt out at me is Coyle’s description of people engaged in deep practice – the behaviours that lead to myelination and thus the development of skill. They display a characteristic facial expression, a kind of intent squint that makes them all look rather like Clint Eastwood. So of course I went to refresh my memory of his face and laughed out loud at the results of a google image search – my screen reminded me of a class or a choir when I’ve just asked them to do something they’ve not done before.

Team-coaching with Fascinating Rhythm

Riser-top view of the team in actionRiser-top view of the team in actionRegular readers will know by now that Fascinating Rhythm have been leading the way amongst British barbershop choruses by bringing newly commissioned music to the contest stage every year since 2015. Last weekend was their annual retreat at which they got their teeth into their 5th consecutive new package, and for the first time they decided to invite me to coach for a day alongside their regular coach Sally McLean rather than bring us in separately as they have hitherto.

I was going to say that fortunately their regular coach and their regular arranger have very compatible approaches to music and performance, but that makes it sound like it’s luck or coincidence. Thinking about it, though, it would be more surprising if they chose people to work with regularly who had incongruent artistic attitudes.

Semiotic Theory and the Futility of Bowdlerising Lyrics

A decade ago I was alert enough to the portrayal of race in music to be squeamish about a quartet of white women taking on the character of a mixed-race prostitute in song. Looking back, I take my past self’s points about the mitigating European context of both the version of the song the quartet were responding to and their audience’s frame of reference. But I also note it’s been a good long time since I withdrew that particular chart from circulation.

Bowdlerising the lyrics was not enough to ‘rescue’ that song, and today’s task is to articulate why that is so often the case. Much of the theoretical groundwork for this has appeared in past blog posts, but sometimes it’s useful to draw ideas together to shed light on continuing debates about how to handle songs which encode values we may no longer wish to align ourselves with.

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