LABBS Education Day
Saturday saw 160 singers from 15 LABBS choruses travel from around the South-East of England to Little Chalfont in Buckinghamshire for the third of four education days LABBS held during April. Much of the day was spent with the singers forming a monster-sized chorus under the direction of Amersham A Cappella's director, Helen Lappert with coaching from representatives of each of the barbershop judging categories, interspersed with break-out sessions in smaller groups.
I was there as the representative of the Music Category, although my break-out session, as you will know if you saw my last post, was more intended for the Human Being Category.
The format of the day was quite standard for these kinds of events, and I was thinking on the way home about what makes it so effective.
At the most simple level, there's the balance - and indeed alternation - between practical and theoretical focus. The point of these days is to help people become better at what they do, and one of the most direct ways to effect that is to get on with the activity itself.
At the same time, if it were just a day of singing on the risers, it wouldn't be that much different from a regular chorus night, only scaled up. The break-out sessions give the chance to develop a different style of knowledge - declarative, analytical rather than embodied - and the opportunity to process knowledge through discussion.
It's this cycle between action and reflection that makes the days effective educationally. At the same time, the change in activity every 45 minutes or so keeps the attention refreshed and the bodies energised. A small, but interesting detail in the format is that there were three break-out sessions, each of which ran twice, so every delegate could only get to two. This meant that friends were busy reporting to each other in the breaks on what they had just experienced. This is a great way to reinforce learning, and it was built into the day in a completely unforced way.
The huge chorus is also a key element of the formula, and this social dimension of the learning experience is interesting. Part of its value is the sheer sense of occasion, you get singing with such a large body of singers - the feedback loop from voice to ear gives a visceral as well as musical sense of uplift. This is why massed voice events are popular as stand-alone events in all kinds of choral genres.
But the educational value is not just in having had a jolly good sing, and thus going home with a positive response to the experience. My hunch is that people learn more singing in a chorus of 160 than they would have done had the same team of presenters gone to work with their individual chorus. How is this enhanced social dimension enhancing the learning process?
There are several things going on here I think. First is the opportunity to sing alongside more skilled and experienced singers. Spending the day on the risers next to a gold-medal winning singer will raise a novice's game no end. But it's not just the novices who get value from the experience (if it were, the gold-medallists would stay away, and then of course the novices would lose that opportunity).
Second, there is an interesting combination of stimulation and safety. Everyone present is bumped out of their comfort zone by the experience. Simply getting off your home patch does this (which is why chorus retreats are so effective), but the sudden and complete change to your aural surroundings removes your capacity to run on autopilot - you are inherently primed to learn more. At the same time, the sheer numbers keep you feeling safe: if you fall off the music, you know you'll be able to climb back on and it won't all fall apart. This also frees you up to take more risks than you might usually.
Third, I suspect that the very act of singing in a large chorus affects your identity as a singer. It's partly because we are used to the bigger choruses also being better ones, so finding yourself in the middle of one leads you to step up to the mark - you have high expectations of ensemble, so you start to live up to those expectations. But I think that even without those preconceptions, the experience of the sound changes you.
A chorus of 160 sounds amazing even before you've done any work to refine technique or performance. You are part of a sound that tells you that you are part of something wonderful, and so you live up to that self-image. People have a strong need to behave self-consistently, so if they perceive themselves to be top-notch, they will need to sing in a way that is consistent with that perception.