Helping Holland Harmonise

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The Buzz: They did sing an 8-parter with Crossroads, but I had run out of battery by then, so no pic...The Buzz: They did sing an 8-parter with Crossroads, but I had run out of battery by then, so no pic...

The weekend after my adventures at BinG! Harmony College, I was at serving on the faculty at another Harmony College, this time in the Netherlands. I’m going to try to avoid talking about Holland Harmony’s event primarily in terms that compare it with Germany’s and treat it as a subject in its own right as it deserves.

But just to get the comparisons out of the way, I’ll note that it wasn’t just the proximity in dates that make it tempting to consider them side by side. They both had a similar structure, with a contest on the first evening, an informal sign-up show on the Saturday night, and a final show-and-tell performance session to finish the weekend. There were also several faculty members in common between the two events.

The stand-out feature of the school has to be having Crossroads and The Buzz on the faculty: two quartets who are not merely International Champions (‘merely’ - ha!), but who have developed an extended performing career since their respective championship years, bringing many extra layers of experience to the occasion. During the daytime sessions, they were mostly operating as individual faculty members, leading workshops and rehearsals, and coaching quartets. But in the plenary sessions - the contest and the two shows - they performed.

This, of course, was a delight and treat. But it was also a powerful part of the educational experience. People learning their craft need the analytical processes of coaching and teaching that break that craft down into its constituent elements to allow skill acquisition. But they also need to experience the full holistic package of how those elements fit together to create an integrated set of vocal, performative, imaginative and emotive behaviours. That’s a grown-up way of saying that it helps to witness, in the flesh, how experts do it.

There are two dimensions to this. (Possibly more. There are two I’m thinking about right now.) First, there’s modelling. Our mirror neurons provide a powerful mechanism to learn complex behaviours. Being with, attending to, and empathising with someone doing their thing excellently is a great opportunity to learn intuitively how to be like them. I couldn’t help noticing how, after joining in with part of Debbie Cleveland’s warm-up on Sunday morning, that I walked into my first class in remarkably good voice for the time of day and level of tiredness I was carrying. She wasn’t doing anything complex, but because she was leading by singing well, she helped everyone bring their best voices to the party.

The other dimension is ignition, the spark that motivates ongoing growth beyond the occasion itself. If the classes and workshops gave provided guidance on how singers and ensembles could grow and develop, the performances from the two quartets made it clear why you might want to make the effort to follow the guidance. Holding that full sensory experience in memory both stimulates renewed focus and purpose in an ensemble’s work, and offers a guiding vision of the kind of experience they are working towards.

The other feature of note this weekend was the foregrounding of the changes in the Barbershop Harmony Society’s judging system as the Presentation Category transmutes into the new one of Performance. This has been a topic at all the events I have been to this year (we had a very useful session on this from Sandi Wright at LABBS Harmony College back in April), but in Holland it felt like a theme that pervaded much of the activity.

This was partly due to three of the non-quartet faculty being performance specialists, so there was a lot of expertise in the house. But also in the classes others of us were teaching - I found myself doing a lot of stagecraft and performance psychology as well as conducting and musicianship. All material I regularly engage with, but not always in that balance. And the curriculum showed similar things turning up in the other faculty members’ offerings. The word emotion showed up a lot in titles for workshops on singing or directing, crafts that can - quite validly and usefully - be approached from multiple other directions.

And once the theme is in the air, you find it popping up all over the place. Partly because it’s good to help people in one class or coaching session connect what they’re learning with what they’ve done in different sessions with other faculty members. And also because one of the main topics of conversation for both faculty members and delegates over mealtimes is what’s been going on in their sessions. So the theme starts to pervade the social spaces around the curriculum: we’re not just all teaching and learning about performance, we’re integrating its principles and values into our shared culture.

There are definitely some further reflective blog posts in the pipeline about the new Performance Category as I work through the implications of these conversations. But for now I have one more observation about the experience of intensive weekends like this. The teaching days are long, and the evenings continue with structured activities, all to be followed by afterglows where the day’s experiences are processed in a social environment for several more hours. You fit all this in by skimping on sleep.

And, yes, the morning sessions see some very bleary faces, and, yes, you do find everyone suffering from mild cognitive impairment from tiredness at various points over the weekend. But, you know, if you look at the schedule of activities and its demands, people are in remarkably good shape even right at the end of the last day.

How this works came into focus for me in a conversation with Stuart Sides, who had been on the faculty at BinG! the previous week and was at Holland Harmony College as a delegate with his quartet. It wasn’t just adrenaline that was carrying us, we realised, it was adrenaline and love. The spirit of the occasion carries you through far beyond the point where you’d think you’d be running on empty. Because you don’t actually get empty: you are giving all day, but you are also being reciprocally nourished by the kindness, goodwill, and musical generosity of faculty and delegates alike.

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