LABBS Directors: Show and Tell

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Action shot from the coaching sessionAction shot from the coaching session

Sunday saw the second of the days I have led for the chorus directors of the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers. Like last year's, we had around 90 delegates, but this year we had expanded the team of facilitators and presenters to make it even more of an extravaganza. The thinking behind this is that one of the primary challenges in developing this programme is giving the membership access to the wonderful resource of each other's experience, while still giving everyone the chance to feel like a delegate who is being educated and not only a presenter who is helping others.

The session that was the most rewarding from my perspective was also one of the shortest (this wasn't the reason!). We had billed it as 'show and tell', as it show-cased the association's most successful director, Sally McLean who directed the assembled delegates while I gave a commentary highlighting aspects of her technique to note.

Sally was one of the four directors featured in my book on choral conducting, chosen as an expert exemplar of the style. So I was very familiar with analysing her approach - and indeed it was a great pleasure to revisit the analytical process in general that took up so much of my time during the research and writing of that book.

But it was also great to share. There was not a person in the room who did not already admire her, but it was fun to be able to specify to them why they were right to do so. The reasons included:

  • An open, wide back that encourages support and resonance
  • Integrated arms that encourage the voices to gel (aka 'the Kermit Principle' - to be developed in a separate post soon)
  • A smile that shows the teeth and thus keeps the sound bright
  • Gaze behaviour that keeps the whole room feeling included and engaged
  • Gestures that 'pull' the sound from the ictus for continuity of line; the hands ar visibly alive with the music
  • A clear visual distinction between 'musical' gestures that shape the flow in the primary gesture space, and 'didactic' gestures removed from the flow to remind or draw attention to specific details
  • Very efficient instructions, giving a clear to-do (rather than stating the problem) followed up by gestural reminder in time to get it right
  • Notwithstanding all that technical command, continually evincing joy in the music

That last one is rather important (mild understatement). It was striking in the following session, in which I coached directors with a range of experience and technical control, that the feedback from the rest of the delegates always affirmed that this was what they most responded to.

This is stating the obvious of course. But I think it's worth thinking about anyway, as it invokes some interesting reflections on musical hierarchies of value. Barbershop culture has a clearly articulated ranking through the contest system of standards of relative competence, but apart from the transparency of its numerical scaling, this isn't much different from hierarchies in other musical worlds. There is always a sense that some performers are more assured, while others have less technical control.

But how we feel about these differences is important. I am on record already for disapproving of those who would disparage the offerings of those with incomplete technical control, and critiquing the supposition that these performances are any less deeply felt than those of experts. Yes, being good at what you do is to be celebrated, but that doesn't mean those with less skill are not also making a useful contribution to the universe. We are none of us finished products, after all.

And this is why I so enjoyed that human and humane connection between directors and singers on Sunday. The warmth, the delight, the music was genuinely shared at whatever experience level each director could bring to the occasion. And as the coaching made adjustments to each director's technique, the feedback also came back framed in these terms.

'I felt more clarity of intention'
'I was more aware of the sensitivity in your hands'
'I was able to sing more expressively'

These are the kinds of statements that will motivate technical development. Changing habits and acquiring new skills isn't easy, it requires dedication. It can be scuppered by self-doubt, or beliefs that you're just not in the league of those you admire. But when your peers (including those you admire) tell you things like this that affirm the validity of your musical responses, technical developments come to appear both worthwhile and possible.

Thank you for such an interesting and inspiring article (especially the last paragraph. Unfortunately the penalties of living in such a beautiful place as the Isle of Wight means that often time/distance/additional costs inhibits the attendance at these fabulously fun and informative events. As a newbie director with my Island barbershop chorus, Wight Satin, I'm climbing a very steep learning curve very quickly, holding on very precariously to a very thin limb, and am ravenous for any hints, tips, help, encouragement I can possibly chew on!! Desperately hoping to attend the next Directors Day and/or meeting up with my peers and those friends/director buddies I've already had the pleasure of communicating with when possible - It's great to be a barbershopper!!!!

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