The Challenges of Being ‘Young and Talented’

childcond

There’s a scenario that happens frequently enough that it is possible to generalise about: a well-established choir acquiring a ‘young and talented’, but relatively inexperienced director. I put the ‘young and talented’ in scare quotes, as that’s how the director is usually described by the choir, but may not be how I would put it.

The dimension of youth is generally quite clear (though possibly not quite as purely objective as you might think - the perception of juniority can be magnified or diminished by other factors such as gender and class). But the concept of ‘talent’, as regular readers will know, is open to critique - it is a concept that mythologises the products of dedication as innate rather than hard-won.

Hallmark Healthcheck

Hallmark

Nearly three years ago I visited Hallmark of Harmony in Sheffield to spend an evening observing their rehearsal prior to producing a report to feed into their five-year plan for the chorus’s development. In the intervening time they have gone from success to success, having won a succession of contest medals, the most recent one of which has qualified them to go and compete at the Barbershop Harmony Society’s International Convention this summer.

This week I went back for a return visit, which they framed this time as giving them a healthcheck. This seems a most apt metaphor - they have clearly found their mojo as a chorus and didn’t need help fixing problems that were conspicuously holding them back. But just as if you wait until you are suffering to seek medical advice, you miss the opportunity to nip ailments in the bud, reviewing how you are getting on as a chorus while things are going well can help you head off issues that could become problems in the future. You can also identify ways to turn good health into even better health - indeed a chorus has rather more scope to do this than the medical profession!

The Quandary of the Abandoned Assistant: Part 2

In my previous post on this subject, I was mulling over the phenomenon of reduced attendance at rehearsals taken by an assistant rather than front-line director. I had got as far as analysing it as a side-effect of the director’s function in creating charismatic encounters. It’s not that the assistants are not inspiring and compelling as people, it’s that it is the role itself of director that confers the power to galvanise.

We had got as far as starting to think about the routinization of charisma when the post got too long, so that’s where we’re starting today.

To recap the theory: Weber’s classic formulation of charismatic authority, upon which pretty much all sociological studies in this area build, saw it as an essentially volatile social relationship, born in situations of crisis, outside and indeed often in opposition to, more stable forms of authority (such as the traditional or bureaucratic). Later studies have observed that, whilst this inherent instability is often apparent in charismatic groups, some organisations manage to sustain themselves for considerable lengths of time.

A Cappella Spring Fest

The Contemporary A Cappella Stream in performanceThe Contemporary A Cappella Stream in performance

I spent Sunday at the fifth annual A Cappella Spring Fest to be held in the Cornerstone arts centre in Didcot. It’s a rather wonderful event, hosted by a couple of local choirs, whose ongoing collaboration has produced slick organisation and a confident and helpful team. If you’re anywhere near Oxfordshire on the second weekend in March next year, I’d recommend it as a way to spend a day with 120 like-minded singers.

The day involves plenary sessions at start and end for warm-up and work on the Fest Song all together in the morning, and then performances in the afternoon. It then offers a choice of classes for two sessions, then two sessions in genre-themed groups working on a piece to share at the end of the day. This year there were streams for gospel, classical, barbershop, a new-to-a-cappella group, and I was leading the contemporary a cappella stream.

The Quandary of the Abandoned Assistant

I was recently in one of those conversations in which somebody is worried about an experience, and wonders if it’s entirely their fault, or whether other people have the same problem, and I realised it is an incredibly common issue that I’d not really seen discussed anywhere before. So I hope the other people in that conversation don’t mind me sharing with a wider audience, because it is common across all kinds of choirs, and having the conversation on a wider scale could well be useful to others who are going through the same thing.

The issue is this: on the rehearsal when the director is away and their assistant standing in, attendance drops significantly.

Now, the assistant obviously feels this keenly. It does feel like people are voting with their feet and are telling you that you aren’t worth getting off the sofa for. But it’s not just the assistant who feels it. It is irksome for the director, who not unreasonably hoped to be able to carry on from where everyone had got to in their absence, but instead has to go back and support people who are catching up from missing a week. It also dampens the spirits of the people who do make the effort to turn up.

Gearing Up in Guildford

GuildfordI spent Saturday afternoon working with Guildford Harmony prior to their appearance on a show in the town’s Electric Theatre raising funds for the Royal Surrey Hospital’s Detecting Women’s Cancers appeal. The occasion had emerged synergistically around the show. On one hand, they had been running a ‘taster course’ for potential new members, and the chance to participate in the show gave them a wonderful performance goal and emotional focus for the course. On the other, I had been invited also to appear on the show, in my guise as stand-up comedian.

Since I was in town, the opportunity to have me work with the chorus in the afternoon gave an even greater sense of culmination to the course (as well as being of practical support to the new singers of course!). The fact that it led me to a rather dizzying set of role-changes during the course of the day was secondary. At least I could see it coming and prepare carefully.

On the Art of Listening

earSo we all know that to be a good musician you need to be able to listen. The better directors can hear both the composite sound and the detail of what their ensembles produce, the more power they have to improve it. And the individual musicians within the ensemble need to be able to listen and respond to each other to achieve such desiderata as tuning, blend, balance, synchronisation - indeed, all the forms of interpersonal coordination we refer to collectively, if tautologically, as ‘ensemble’.

People care about the art of listening in other walks of life, too. Self-help books that promise to help your interpersonal skills tell you to pay attention to what other people say in conversation, not just spend the time you’re not talking planning what you’re going to say next.

And in specialist circumstances such as counselling and psychotherapy, it is central: not only does the therapist need to listen acutely to reach a diagnosis, the patient needs to feel listened to.

MasterMixing it Up

mastermixLast weekend brought a visit from mixed quartet MasterMix for a coaching session. I’ve worked with a few long-distance quartets in my time, but this one is raising the stakes rather in terms of logistics: not content with a journey between Derbyshire and Essex to sing together, they bring their bass in from Sweden. It seems appropriate, really, that their first two contests together will have been in Ireland (last autumn) and Spain (coming up in April).

Long-distance quartets typically have a skill profile in which the individual singers are operating initially at a higher level than the whole. They will often have considerable experience in other ensembles through which they have honed their skills, and are motivated to take on the extra travel to work together by the opportunity to sing with people who can bring this experience to the table. By the same token, their opportunities to learn how they are going to operate as a unit are relatively few compared to a local quartet, but commensurately more intensive. If they can only meet every few weeks, they make a proper weekend of it.

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