Miscellanous Thoughts from Holland Harmony College

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This is another of those posts where I ruminate on the observations that collect in my notebook over a stimulating weekend, this time from my adventures with Holland Harmony. Many of these, I discover now I try to organise them, are about making connections between things I had already been aware of in ways which illuminate both.

  • In my ‘Make Your Nerves Work For You’ workshop, a discussion about our relationship with technical details produced the idea of how to develop a personal ritual to meet individual needs. I was making the recommendation that on performance day, you need to trust your preparation, and that finicking over details tends to create anxiety in the ensemble and detach them from the overall sense of purpose. A participant asked how to balance that with their personal left-brain orientation that finds a detail-focus comforting. The dialogue produced the solution of planning in a quiet time with the music, either the night before or that morning, but before getting together with the rest of the group, to satisfy the cognitive need without disturbing the holistic orientation of the group preparation on the day.
  • Positive framing is a feature of the Intervention and Enforcement Cycles I covered in my ‘Efficient Rehearsal Techniques’ session. It transferred straight across into the Nerves class and how to frame goals (in this case, personal goals, but it’s true of all three types). We took the personal goal of ‘not getting too nervous’ and recast it as ‘enjoy the music as we perform it’. This is useful not just because it is easier to do something than avoid doing something, but also to get the focus outwards rather than inwards. It is a more purposeful state of mind to think about the music than to monitor yourself
  • My Sharpen You Barbershop Ears workshops introduced, amongst other things, the principle that regular readers will know well, that duetting is an exercise to develop your listening skills as much or more than it is an exercise for practising singing. I find I am increasingly using this as a principle for teaching stagecraft too: the point of the practical work isn’t just to give practice and feedback to those doing it, it is for those watching to develop their awareness of detail and nuance in the execution. This was always true, of course, but making it explicit frames the ‘not-doing’ time as active learning time, giving everyone a much more continuous learning experience, and significantly upgrading the quality of analysis in the discussions.
  • Real-time feedback in the stage-craft sessions is also a valuable addition for both the minute-to-minute experience of the doers and the active engagement of the watchers. This is the kind of thing I’d usually do with director training, asking the choir to mirror every occurrence of a habit we’re trying to eliminate, or stop singing if the conductor mouths the words. If you want to train people out of looking at their feet when they arrive on stage, having the class make a funny noise every time it happens is much more effective than telling them afterwards it had happened. And it speeds up the pace of the class, too, as so much feedback is in the flow of the activity, leading to shorted intervals between each practical.
  • The educational value of laughter was very clear on Sunday morning, when a collection of very bleary people (me included) gathered to engage in aural exercises that required mental agility. The workshop included all kinds of games and exercises to challenge the musical brain, and if people could do them all first time, then the class would have failed - there is only growth when people are playing at the edge of what they can do. (Also, I have some demon exercises that just grow with you - however experienced or inexperienced you are, they take you to that edge.) So people needed permission to make mistakes without worrying, and not least because we were starting in a state of noticeable cognitive impairment.

    So I found myself cracking jokes all over the place, firstly to get people in the habit of laughing so that they could relax into the spirit of the games. Mistakes were happening all over the place, of course, but we needed to be able to own them as part of the process. And once you get the hang of laughing at the mistakes, you build an atmosphere in which jokes are easier to crack - an atmosphere with a very positive emotional tone, and considerably more energy than you might expect the morning after a short night.

    On reflection, I think the key element to this process was the loosening of executive control. Playfulness works much better when you’re not over-thinking things. But in an unfamiliar situation, and one in which you know your brain is a bit under par, you are likely to want to hang on tightly to System 2, deliberate thinking out of caution. When you feel safe enough to laugh, you let your fast, intuitive, creative mind in on the act, and both the fun and the learning begins.

  • Counterfactual emotions emerged in a coaching session at BinG! Harmony College in the song ‘The Way We Were’. I met some more coaching ‘When I Fall in Love’, which adds a huge dose of raising the stakes. The lyrics are basically saying, ‘I have one shot at love in my life, and I have my eye on you’. I will be doing some mulling on the new Performance Category’s notion of ‘stageworthy’ at some point, and this sense of jeopardy is likely to a useful element to think about there.

I’d particularly like to thank the workshop participants who asked questions in class. The quality of questions throughout the weekend was top-notch - really a propos at the moment they emerged and contributing to the richness of learning for everyone (including me!). I love that feeling when you are developing knowledge together, generating insights that none of you would probably have thought about by yourself.

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