Values and Skills Audits with Bristol Fashion
Over the last couple of weeks I have been helping Bristol Fashion with a similar kind of review/audit process that I undertook with Hallmark of Harmony back in March. As with that exercise, I am not going to share the detail of what the review produced here - as that is for the chorus use - but I would like to reflect somewhat on the process.
The review with Bristol Fashion worked as a two-stage process. It started off with a visit to observe their Music Team in action on a regular rehearsal night, which produced a report that identified things that are working well (i.e. to make sure they keep doing them!) and areas that can be developed as individuals and as a team.
This was followed, two weeks later, by a second visit in which I facilitated a values- and goal-setting exercise with the whole chorus. The aim of this was for the singers to articulate to each other the things that matter the most to them about their musical life together, and to generate concrete actions that each individual could undertake to enhance their shared experience.
The aspect of this process I have been mulling over throughout is the order in which we did it. From a standing start, you’d tend to think that establishing values should come first. Until you have made explicit what people fundamentally care about, decisions about what to do will be based just on assumptions - which may be quite accurate, but may not always be. Even your assumptions were accurate, having real clarity about the rationale behind decisions helps people commit to them.
But my instinct remained that we should do the observation visit first, and it has taken some time to work out why I felt that way.
First, it was a means to manage the pressure on the chorus’s Music Team. Whatever came out of the values/goals session, much of the work to make things happen was likely to fall on the shoulders of the musical leadership. Indeed, this was partly why I included action-setting for all chorus members in the session, to remind everyone that you don’t need to rely on others to make things happen, but all can participate. But still, it was clear that the Music Team were going to end the goals session with a to-do list from their singers.
And this would be less of a burden if they were already primed with some ideas for development plans and tweaks to their working methods. When a chorus makes demands on their musical leaders, those leaders can often feel, ‘Well, yes of course you want the moon on a stick, but how am I supposed to give you that? I am already working as hard as I can!’ Focusing on the needs of the musical leaders first gives more chance that their response to the singers’ expressed needs will be, ‘Yes, and we have a Plan to help with just that!’
Second, it meant that I was going into the second visit with a much clearer idea of the current feel and texture of chorus experience. I am old friends with Bristol Fashion, so it wouldn’t have been a matter of sight-reading them entirely, but it’s a while since I’ve worked with them and it was important that I was able to meet them where they are now. (Indeed, now I think about it, that is one of the advantages of going to work with a group for the very first time - you can’t make assumptions on past experience so have to engage in the now.)
The one thing I didn’t anticipate until it hit me in action was the way that doing things in this order was going to put pressure on me. We had left time in my second visit for working on some music together at the end (goals are all very well, but people come out to chorus to sing!). And so suddenly I was faced with 40 people who had all recently read my analysis of ways to fine-tune rehearsal and coaching techniques. I found myself hoping I was practising what I preach.
Fortunately, I too had spent time thinking about these issues, so was particularly aware of the kinds of techniques available, and had enough presence of mind even to use some of them! Though of course, mostly the needs of the music in the moment absorbed so much attention there was little left over either to self-monitor in great detail or, by the same token, to get too distracted by self-consciousness.
So it was an interesting exercise in accountability. I have remarked before how it keeps you honest as an arranger if you know you may have to demonstrate or teach anything you’ve arranged. Putting the notes on the page is a claim that they are worth singing, so I need to be able to make good on that claim. And it felt like a similar dynamic here: my recommendations to approach certain details of the rehearsal process in particular ways were being immediately put to the test.
But in both areas, the same process that makes you accountable furnishes the wherewithal to take the responsibility. The act of writing the report clarified the concepts and techniques I was then expected to demonstrate. Another observer would no doubt have taken a somewhat different tack through the experience, but whatever they focused on would have been strengthened in their own skillset by the act of analysis and reflection.
Which neatly sums up one of the reasons it is rewarding to do this kind of consultancy exercise (not only is it satisfying to help, but you develop as a practitioner yourself through the process), and also why it is useful to get someone else’s perspective every so often (different human beings draw attention to different things).