ABCD Initial Course: Thoughts on Learning Structures

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Justin Doyle's rather elegant illustrations of patternJustin Doyle's rather elegant illustrations of pattern

I spent Saturday up in Newcastle teaching conducting with Justin Doyle for the Association of British Choral Directors. This was the first of four full days, each a month apart, that makes up the abcd Initial Course. The course is very well established, though this is the first time it has run in this location and with this team. (The Newcastle course will also feature Martin Cook and Keith Orrell in future sessions.)

Regular readers will know that I like to think about the way the structure of events affects the learning experience, and there are several specific features of this course to reflect on in this context.

Peer Learning

It is kind of obvious that people have a more rounded and holistic learning experience when they do it in groups with other people on the same kind of journey. This is why distance-learning specialists like the Open University still like to get people together for tutorial groups and summer schools to punctuate their studies at home.

But I think conductors feel this more keenly than most other musicians, as most of the time, there is only one of them in the room at the time. The act of making music in an ensemble doesn’t routinely offer the informal peer learning experience to conductors in the way it does to those they conduct. So when you get a room full of them together, there is a real sense of occasion. You can see it by how eagerly the course participants share their experience during the breaks. Indeed, you can also see it in how excited the tutors get about seeing how other people teach conducting: this is a treat for us too.

Distance Learning

Having said that, the abcd structure also provides a good structure for people to study in their own time. A month between each session gives enough space to practise, to prepare for the next session, and to integrate the overall learning experience alongside a busy professional life, but it is a short enough interval that people do need to keep it alive in their awareness.

In particular, the opportunity to review the practical sessions is a wonderful resource. All participants receive hands-on coaching during every session, and these sessions are videoed and shared for tutors and students to review in between times. The technology for this gets more convenient with every passing year, but the abcd have been facilitating this learning experience since before memory cards and youtube made it easy. Because observation skills improve with practice as much as conducting skills do, and you need to learn to see and hear the significant difference that subtle changes in technique can make in order to replicate them at will.

Intensity versus Regularity

Usually in educational scenarios, you have to choose between these two. You either have regular input with practice in between for systematically building skills, or deep immersion on a special occasion to spark step-change leaps in progress. The structure of the abcd offering manages to offer both.

This is particularly valuable as it is so hard to acquire solid technique outside the context of a regular course of instruction. Yet so many choral conductors take on the role via routes in which they have specialised in other things. Teachers, for instance, or organists (though they do get a bit more specific choral input in their training these days), or singers who suddenly find themselves leading their peers. These are not people who can step out of their day jobs to study conducting full-time.

Yet they often need more sustained support than individual conducting days or weekend events - valuable as these are in all kinds of ways - can deliver. If you try to teach a director who does not have a secure grasp of traditional patterns how to do 2, 3 and 4 in a single day with no chance for follow-up, you are quite likely to send them home feeling suddenly deskilled and alienated from their praxis.

It is a whole different affair when you can spend several hours working on pattern with a group, knowing that nobody is expected to leave as a finished product. Rather, everyone goes home knowing what they need to practise, with a month to get on with it in the knowledge that more support will be forthcoming a further three times.

It is still a biggish commitment for participants to make, but it is realistic to undertake it as CPD for an early-career teacher, or as a project for a dedicated amateur with a career in a different field. Indeed, the more I reflect on both these issues of structure and the content of the course itself, the more I am struck by how they are informed by a real understanding of the learning needs and life-patterns of the course’s target audience.

And if this encourages any readers to consider abcd training in the future, I think you’ll be pleased with what it offers.

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