Making Ear Contact with Albacapella

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On Wednesday night I literally had a flying visit (plane up to Scotland Wednesay afternoon, plane back to Birmingham Thursday morning) to work with Albacapella, a relatively new ladies barbershop chorus up in Aberdeenshire. They started about 3 years ago, and are just heading into what will be their second trip to compete in the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers Convention this autumn.

The main challenge they are currently grappling with is embedding skills that they currently exercise at the level of conscious competence (i.e. they can do if they specifically focus on them) into automated processes that they do as a matter of course. Actually, that sentence could describe pretty much any choral group at any stage of development, but, with only a short history together as an ensemble, and having taken a major leap forward in skill acquisition at a retreat earlier in the year, Albacappella are particularly aware of which specific skills they are aiming to integrate.

The main challenge for a director of chorus in this development phase is to resist the desire to constantly remind the chorus about this skills and techniques. Especially if you are the kind of generous-spirited person who always wants to help. And even more especially if you are the founder-director of the chorus, and thus carrying that extra sense of responsibility, since the fact that everyone is even there at all is directly your fault.

This is the inner game that their director, Mike Warner, currently needs to play - interestingly related to, but distinct from, the experience of the director I had just blogged about when I went up to visit. He was experiencing a strong tendency to over-anticipate, filling his gesture space with help that the singers might need, but leaving little capacity - either in his gestures or his attention - to live in the musical moment with them.

Our key task, then, was to calm his body down enough to give his ears space to work. Or possible the other way round - to get his ears connected deeply enough with his chorus’s sound that he could let his physical being look after itself. We played with a number of exercised designed to damp down his ‘broadcast’ circuit and actively engage his ‘receive’ one instead, and after a while found ourselves in a place where he could stand still with his eyes closed and just let the music in. The sound grew in resonance and integrity in response; the voices became more expressive, and the tonal centre stayed stable.

At a technical level, Mike needed to use the large muscle groups much less in order to give room for nuance in his finer motor movements. But to do this, he needed to trust himself and his relationship with the music - the challenge was much more one of mental discipline than physical control. You don’t need many muscles to operate your ears, but you do need a good deal of emotional courage.

The reward for taking on this inner game, though, was finding a place to be with the chorus where the skills they want to exercise connect meaningfully with the music they want to make. And in doing so, the skills could integrate into the chorus’s ways of being, rather than being something they had to think about consciously. Of course, this only works when they skills have already been practised enough that they can be done at will. You can’t just magically achieve resonance without having practised the techniques that develop it. But once you have done so enough to be getting fluent at them, the director can evoke them much more consistently by listening for the beauty they are intended to serve than constantly engaging everyone’s technical brains. Get the Communicator rather than the Manager onside, and the didactic gestures give way to the musical.

From there, we could start to use his ears to affect the sound. At one point, the melody line was getting rather overshadowed by the harmony part, but after a couple of attempts, Mike found how to selectively focus his attention on it so as to bring it back into balance. This is such a useful skill - especially with a small chorus - as balance is always dynamic, affected by all kinds of things: who is present, everyone’s health and state of mind, and the acoustic of the performance space. So, you need to be able to bring it into kilter and keep it true in real time.

It is a truism of choral conducting that eye contact is an important thing to maintain. But, like many truisms, you need to look at its purpose rather than surface of what it says. The important thing is the contact, the sense that conductor and singers are working together in a meaningful and cooperative musical relationship, not the medium through which that contact is made. Ear contact, to my mind, is more fundamental. And singers know when you are right there with them; they respond to the quality of the attention, not its medium.

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