Amersham A Cappella and Expressive Shape

amershamWhen people commission an arrangement, sometimes they don’t want me to hear it until they’ve got it performance-ready. Other times, people like to me to come and work with them on it, presumably on the grounds that that way they get a coach who will is guaranteed to have already spent some time thinking about how the music should go. (And actually, that’s a good way of holding me accountable - I write nothing for others to sing that I wouldn’t be prepared to help them with if they needed it.)

Amersham A Cappella took the latter approach with the contest up-tune they have commissioned for this year’s Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers Convention.* And they got me in right at the start of the process, at the point where everyone basically knew the song, but they hadn’t practised anything into an unbreakable habit yet. So, we could get right in there and build both the overall concept/characterisation, and get some of the expressive details that will bring it alive identified from the get-go.

The Red Queen Effect, and its Emotional Impact

redqueenI have written on a number of occasions about that phenomenon whereby people practise/rehearse most diligently, but don’t seem to get significantly better. (Previous posts are here, here and here.) I was thinking about it again recently, having heard a number of conversations in which people were having to deal with emotional fall-out from this experience in the context of a competitive environment.

There were three main elements that struck me about what people were struggling with. Their ensembles had (a) worked their socks off, (b) found themselves with a slightly lower score than the year before, and (c) had been told by their friends that they were sounding better and better. I wanted to stop and reflect on each of these elements, as they form a clear and recognisable pattern that a lot of groups experience.

Tackling the Too-Hard Tray

toohardtrayWe got ready for the new year by considering what my father used to call the ‘too-hard tray’ - that collection of things that we look at, think, ‘eek!’ and get very busy doing something else very useful in the hope that the sense of virtue will drown out the feeling of being daunted. Corralling our demons into a specified place is a good first step to facing them properly, but does not in itself do anything more than acknowledge that they are there.

Sooner or later, that is, you have to do something about the stuff in the too-hard tray.

You may think that my spending time writing this post is itself a displacement activity, and that I am addressing this question rather than getting on with those things which are currently intimidating me. It would be a fair conclusion to draw.

But, in fact, on this occasion I am actually allowing myself the indulgence of doing some writing (something I am not - currently - scared of) as a reward for having made some progress with the too-hard tray earlier this morning. Take that, Demons!

On the Riviera...

Coaching the Music Team under glassCoaching the Music Team under glassSaturday saw me down in Torquay to work with Riviera Sound. I know their founder-director, Chris Bullen, from years back, but hadn’t been down to work with her in the decade since she had started the chorus. So I was delighted at last to get a chance to hear - and work with - her singers.

(One of the things we chatted about over the day was the relative merits of joining umbrella organisations versus remaining independent. It was only as I started writing this that I realised one advantage joining would have had would be that my curiosity would likely have been satisfied before now. Granted, that is an advantage that accrues to me rather than the chorus, but still...)

Soapbox: How Can You Tell a Good Director?

soapboxEvery so often, you hear someone articulate the idea that ‘So-and-so is a very good director, but their choir isn’t very good’. And when I hear this, my brain goes into melt-down at the sheer invalidity of this concept. The only measure of a conductor’s quality is the standard of performances they elicit from the musicians they work with. If your ensemble isn’t very good, it’s because the director isn’t very good.

Okay, so there are some caveats here. I anticipate your objections.

The raw material makes a difference. A director who is working with novices will not, from a standing start, produce results as good as one working with experienced musicians. This is particularly true of instrumental groups, but also a fair generalisation for singers. You’d expect auditioned choirs to achieve more than non-auditioned, as they have filtered out all the people who lack whichever set of skills you test for at audition.

Magenta Rehearsal Protocols

maglogoThis post started out as noting some info I wanted to share with the people who are starting with Magenta this New Year. And as I typed, facts blossomed into explanations, and I thought: you know what, I could publish this as a blog post rather than just sending it round by email, just in case anyone else finds it useful. Most of how choirs develop, after all, is by people sharing their ideas, and other people thinking, ‘Oh, I could just adapt that for my lot, and it would exactly meet such-and-such need.’

So, to our new singers: you will have already seen these things happening when you came to observe a rehearsal before joining. These are the protocols and rationales that lie behind the behaviours you observed.

Facing Our Demons

demonI have been thinking quite a lot about this recently, mostly in the context of helping directors develop, but - as so often happens in this endeavour - the thoughts spread easily beyond the specialist field of choral music out into all kinds of corners of Real Life. Ensemble musicianship is, after all, about working with human beings.

And, in much the same way that people who train to become counsellors and therapists themselves have to undergo counselling and therapy, educators can’t go very long thinking about the people whose development they are supporting without stopping to consider their own progress. Hence the funny mix of naval-gazing and advice that sometimes emerges...

So, as directors (and in our various other roles in life), we all have areas where we are reasonably confident and secure. We also have areas that we are a bit scared of, that we fear we are not as strong in as we should be. We may try not to think about them too much, which means we remain a bit hazy about exactly what it is we feel inadequate about, but the awareness of it lurks at the back of our minds, ready to assail us in the dead of night whenever things go a bit wobbly.

Seasonal Harmonious Wishes

mulled_wineAs is my wont at this time of year, dear reader, I am going to neglect you for a week or so while I go off and do holiday-season things with Real Life People. I imagine you are doing exactly the same, so I hope you won’t feel too abandoned. Indeed, I hope you are feeling snug and loved-up (Northern hemisphere)/ carefree and summery (Southern hemisphere) with geographically-appropriate seasonal joys.

I wrote back in January about goal-setting, and found myself framing my aspirations for 2014 in terms of the qualities of experience I wished it to contain rather than a concrete to-do list. And I guess now is a good moment to check back in and see how that worked.

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