LABBS Quartet Prelims
On Saturday, the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers came to the Streetly Academy in north Birmingham to hold their preliminary contest round for quartets wishing to compete at the annual convention in the autumn. The really useful dimension of this event is not so much the competitive element (LABBS has not historically had so many quartets that we always need an elimination round for scheduling/logistical purposes), but its educational dimension.
Every quartet that competed on Saturday had the opportunity to see a video recording of their performance immediately afterwards, followed by a 20-minute coaching session from a representative of each of the three judging categories. This is something of a logistical challenge, involving a double of panel of scoring judges, who watch and rank the whole contest, a rolling panel of three judges from each category who take it in turns to watch quartets then go and coach them, and a veritable army of couriers to guide all the quartets and judges round the building so that all were in the right place at the right time. It is the last group who are the real heroines of a day like this.
I was on the evaluating panel for the day, and on my way home I was reflecting on what makes this such an effective educational format in a different way from, say, a day based purely around coaching.
There is the element of contest experience of course. However much you rehearse, there are things you can only learn through stage time. And having the performance element as the start of the day's learning process is quite a different dynamic from a performance as the culmination of a coaching event. For one thing, people arrive that much better prepared.
More importantly, though, the process produces a real sense of learning-readiness. The adrenaline rush of a contest performance is an amazingly effective means of unfreezing because of its inherent sense of urgency. The whole experience is structured so as engender emotional investment.
The opportunity to watch the performance afterwards then opens up space for reflection. People can compare how they felt during the performance with what it appears they actually did achieve. Some people find this quite painful (I am in this camp, though developing a critical distance is proving to be quite empowering in its way); other people find it quite reassuring. Either way, the quartet is well on the road of making decisions about what they need to work on next before they meet the judges for coaching feedback.
The coaching sessions thus need to do very little persuading. The quartets are still somewhat awash with adrenaline, but much more relaxed than earlier, and they have a clear sense of 'this is what we need now'. The role of the judge shifts from telling them how they did to helping them find methods to achieve their next goals.
In this context, I was thinking a lot also about the process of prioritising. Twenty minutes is enough to get quite a lot done, if you are focused about what you are trying to achieve. It's a very different coaching mode from the performance-development approach one would take in preparation for a contest. The attention gets much more focused on things that can generalise beyond the individual instance. We work a passage in the spirit of 'for example', with the expectation that the learning point will apply throughout the song, and indeed throughout their repertoire. The sessions are short enough that you need quick wins, but equally you want to offer something with some depth that will be of continued use to the quartet over the months between now and Convention.
It's actually a great coaching discipline, and puts us on our mettle as educators. But then again, given how the singers start the day by putting themselves on the line, this is only fair, isn't it?