Miscellaneous Observations from BinG! Harmony College

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Cy Wood in actionCy Wood in actionAs I reported earlier in the month, I had a stupendously enriching time with the good people of Barbershop in Germany at their Harmony College. Having done all the big-picture reflections when I first came home, I find my notebook has a pile of interesting observations, none of which is big enough to blog about in themselves, but all of which are too useful not to share.

So here is a pleasant miscellany of observations of things I found stimulating. Mostly, I see now I write them up, because they were specific instances of general principles I have been writing about over the last couple of years. Always good to see something you theorise about played out in real life.

  • Just days after I had been writing about reframing in positive terms things people weren’t yet managing to their satisfaction, I saw Karen Breidert deploy a fabulous technique for nurturing tricky notes. It was right at the start of the process of rehearsing the women’s chorus, and each part had the occasional note that was a bit surprising and wasn’t being sung accurately.

    In each case, she asked for the part to sing the line and stop and hold that particular moment - which was clearly what it needed, just a little time for the brains to stop and grasp the sound. But the way she did it was splendid. There was no negative response to the initial, out-of-focus attempt, just a friendly instruction to sing the line and stop on the note. And then, when they got there, she gave this wonderful smile and said, ‘I love that note!’

    This was great in two ways. Firstly, from a singer-psychology perspective, she erased any possibility of a particular note getting labelled as ‘the hard bit’, and replaced it with a positive emotional association. Second, from a musical perspective, it is often the notes that are surprising for the singer that are colourful and striking for the audience, so encouraging people to relish them improves their expressive impact in performance.

  • Cy Wood, coaching mix ‘n’ match quartet under glass did some interesting work that resonated with my interests in performing silence and joining phrases with a thought-point rather than a breath-point. ‘Silence is our friend,’ he said, ‘it is the strongest time to act.’ This kind of statement carries more impact when it comes from someone who has professional expertise as an actor.

    He also had a fabulous way of raising the stakes to make staying present between phrases a more urgent task: ‘Never blip out,’ he said, ‘Because you know that’s when they’ll take the photo.’

  • Afterglow quartet brought a song to be coached that was full of counter-factual emotions (Brian Beck’s arrangement of ‘The Way We Were’) and a request that we spend the session exploring the emotional implications of the harmonies. It was a fascinating case-study in the way musical structures can create yearniness and nostalgia. Obviously, the lyrics play an important part in this in setting up the comparison of now and then that defines the song’s emotional tone. But the music does a lot too, that you’d be able to feel even you didn’t understand the words, or if it were played on instruments.

    Examples included:

    • Appoggiaturas in harmony parts (especially the baritone), crunching up dissonantly against the melody, and then resolving away to lessen the tension, though often still leaving the whole on a colour chord rather than straight triad. It felt like a twinge of emotional pain sighing away through mild regret towards acceptance.
    • Phrase-end embellishments that started with the melody harmonised with a stable chord that defined the cadence, from where the harmony parts wandered off to a harmony in which the melody note functioned as colour rather than structure. The effect was of certainty questioned.
    • Added notes, such as 9ths in major triads, that didn’t undermined the stability of the chord, but turned a straightforward feeling into a more complex one, aware of other possibilities.
  • A participant in my introduction to directing class, Regina Hochenegger, gave me a wonderful example of the application of patience to enforce correct standards.
    horsetraining It concerned the training of horses, and how, when riding round a rectangular paddock, they will, if allowed, choose to cut the corner rather than stay parallel with the edge. To correct this, every time the horse went to cut the corner, she would take it into an extra little loop to bring it back on course. This pic is a copy of the one she drew on a scrap of paper to illustrate the idea.

    This feels like a great example of Doug Lemov’s principle of Right is Right, and I am sure I have happened across rehearsal tactics that have exactly this structure, if only I could think of them (which I can’t right now). But it stays with me as a model of how to approach the perennial challenge of keeping people up to exacting standards when the inclination is so often to preserve one’s energy and produce the merely adequate.


  • David McEachren, as ever, filled my brain with thoughts as deep as his voice, most of which I’m going to need to sit down and think about a good deal before I share anything here. But here is one little nugget that I think is the most useful thing anyone has said to me in 2016*:

    You can’t choose to be confident, but you can choose courage.

    *So far. If anyone says anything in the last three months of the year that can beat that in usefulness, 2016 will have been quite a bonanza.

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