Conductors in Cornwall

Delegates and singersDelegates and singers

I spent yesterday down in Saltash, near Plymouth, running a workshop for choral directors from the area. It was organised and hosted by Brunel Harmony, who also provided singers for the directors to be coached working with, and involved 19 current, assistants and aspiring directors from 10 local choirs and choruses, with levels of experience ranging from decades in the job to complete novices.

It can be quite difficult for people living in the country’s peripheries to get up to training events, which are - not surprisingly - usually held in more central regions. So it makes a lot of sense to import workshops instead of travelling out to them, not just logistically and economically, but also in terms of the opportunities for networking. However exciting it is to meet conductors from across the country, it is more useful, on a day-to-day basis, to get to know your neighbours.

Quantum Coaching

Same sofa, same hippo, different quartetSame sofa, same hippo, different quartetSunday afternoon brought a new quartet, Quantum, around for some coaching. They’re new as a quartet, but have a considerable amount of barbershop experience between them, and, oddly enough, the only one I didn’t already know happens to live just round the corner from me. So that was handy for them.

For any quartet in their early days - no matter how much prior experience they have between them - one of the primary tasks is building the ensemble. All their previous quartets will have developed musicianship and vocal control and performance skills which will come in useful for this task, but the actual crafting of their new sound and modes of delivery is still from scratch. So, we started straight in on duetting as the primary tool for all the singers to learn about each other’s voices.

More on Choral Values...

It’s probably not a surprise to hear that I’m still thinking about this question of a choir’s values. If you’ve hung out with me at all in this blog over the years, you’ll recognise that it has that pleasing combination of being something wide-ranging and abstract to theorise about, but which is also intensely practical. Exactly the kind of thing that gets me all lit up and interested.

Anyway, having noticed how a clear sense of your choir’s values is most urgently needed at the moments of crisis, I have been thinking about things we can do during the ebb-and-flow of choral life to build a secure and shared set of values so we have it ready and in good order when we really need it. Moments of crisis draw bring the values to the surface, but they’re really not the best time to start working out what we believe in.

The three main areas I have been thinking about are:

Choral Values...

valuesWhen I was mulling over Digger McDougal’s four pillars of motivation the other day, I said I’d come back and have another think about values at a later date. Of the four pillars, it strikes me as the one that is most fundamental, but by the same token, the one most likely to be implicit rather than actively reflected upon.

So I got to thinking: how does a choir develop its values? And how do you identify the values your own choir holds?

At a BABS Directors College some years back, Chris Davidson introduced an exercise by which to identify your personal values. Ask three people, not necessarily people you are close to, but with whom you are reasonably well acquainted, to say in three words how they would describe you to someone who didn’t know you. The things that they all say are the values you currently live by.

Alliteratively Aural Adventures


Yes, I know it’s getting a bit self-referential to describe the title of a blog post in that blog post, but my usual approach of using either the ensemble’s name or its location as a starting point was running into difficulties. The adventures were down in Coulsdon, near Croydon, with Surrey Harmony - none of which words alliterate with what we were doing, which was a workshop on Aural Skills for Choral Groups (which does at least have an internal rhyme to its name).

One of the things I have reflected on periodically as a review my workshops and coaching sessions is the different kind of things you can deal with effectively at different stages of process of preparation for performance. When the music isn’t yet very familiar, you haven’t got the familiarity to dig into detail, but conversely, you have the freedom to explore big-picture questions of fundamental musical feel. When you’re getting near to the performance, you don’t want to get people questioning what they’re doing, but instead you want to hone and polish and focus.

Digger’s Pillars of Motivation

pillarsAfter my recent posts about Us-and-Themness, I got into an interesting online discussion with a music educator and barbershopper in Canada called J. R. Digger MacDougall (see some of his activities here and here) who shared the concepts he uses to analyse people’s motivations to join and then stay with an organisation. They intersect in some ways with the ideas from Maslow I have been writing about this year, but they slice through the conceptual plane at a somewhat different angle, and I thought that readers who weren’t in that particular group might enjoy mulling over them too.

He presented the concepts as four ‘pillars’, which is itself an apt metaphor to think of the support an organisation gives its members. If all four are in place, their commitment will be solid; if one is shaky or absent, it may continue, but will be more precarious; lose two and the whole shebang will collapse. And each of the four pillars has that useful quality that it presents some immediately practical considerations for an organisation to engage with; you can generate a to-do list from them quite readily.

Managing Melody and Words at the Same Time

So, this subject looks fairly straightforward. It’s what we do every time we sing. There’s the words and the tune, and doing them both at once makes a song. What’s the big mystery?

I’ve had two coaching experiences over the summer that drew my attention to the somewhat different imperatives of and modes of engagement we have with, respectively, linguistic and melodic shapes. I’ve written around these areas before when considering how to deal with over-articulation, or the particular challenges that face people singing in their second language, but new experiences of a particular issue shed new light on it, so I’m finding it useful to have another think about it. Actually, neither experience is new (I come across this question pretty frequently) - it was the juxtaposition that was telling.

Avoiding the Dangers of Us-and-Themness in Choirs

singing group cartoonMy last post was about why it is a problem when a choir starts developing factions. Criticism of one sub-group by another is an early-warning indicator that this might be happening - not least because that articulates the fact that the people doing the criticising are thinking of the others as ‘them’. So, our next question is: what can a director to inhibit such tendencies and to counter them should they appear?

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