A Champion Day

BACfeb24

I spent Saturday with my friends at Bristol A Cappella, working with them on music they will be performing as outgoing Mixed Chorus Champions at BABS Convention in May. What with their mic-warming duties, swan-song set and show spot, there’s a good deal more music to prepare for the event than you ever have to bring as a competitor, so we had a busy time. Fortunately, the groups who are faced with this packed schedule are the ones who have demonstrated skills that will win a contest so are up for the extra challenge.

Practical Aesthetics and Emotional Triggers

I mentioned at the start of my recent post on Theo Hicks’s session on Philosophies of Musical Enjoyment that I had been spurred into getting it written and posted by a conversation with a director who hadn’t been there, but might, I hypothesised, find the ideas useful. That post got too long to move onto how he might do so, so I’m coming back to address his particular circumstance separately.

The particular challenge he was facing was working on a song with his chorus that is particularly poignant, and might touch some his singers a bit too closely for comfort as it referenced in its later stages themes of bereavement and loss. Indeed, he found it quite personally challenging himself even without specific recent life events that might be even more triggering.

Obviously, I pointed him towards my post from last year that address this question directly. But after hearing Theo’s session, it occurred to me to wonder whether the different modes of musical engagement he discussed might give a more purposeful and strategic way to manage this.

Theo Hicks on Practical Aesthetics

The final plenary session at January’s LABBS/BABS Directors Weekend was led by Theo Hicks on the topic, ‘Philosophies of Musical Enjoyment: Listening for the Singers’ Joy’. It produced lots of things I wanted to reflect on, and because I kept getting them tangled up I have been procrastinating trying to organise my notes. But a recent conversation with another director who wasn’t there had me wanting to refer to it and so it’s time to try and untangle the thoughts to render them shareable.

The first thing to note the effect that having that title on the schedule had on the weekend’s overall agenda. It put the word ‘joy’ into our common lexicon in all kinds of contexts before any of us know exactly what Theo was going to talk about.

On Getting Out of the Way

Sometimes you find a common theme emerging in a variety of different parts of your life, and it’s interesting to reflect on how the same principle plays out in different contexts.

While arranging

I’m looking at the most recent one first, as it was this that made me notice a pattern. I was working on an arrangement for barbershop contest, and was getting bogged down in chord choice. Everything sounded a bit mannered and awkward.

Eventually I thought to ask myself: if I were just arranging this as a song with no thought of style requirements, what would I do? And the natural chord choice revealed itself immediately. For sure, it was one of those permitted-but-less-conspicuously-ringy chords that the style guidelines discourage in excess, but it just sounded so much better than any of the other engineered solutions I had been playing with. And the right chord for the moment will always ring better on the voices in real time than a choice that is theoretically ringier but expressively counter-intuitive.

Getting into our Ears

The theme for our recent joint LABBS/BABS Directors Weekend was ‘The Listening Director’. It was originally sparked by a request from a delegate at LABBS Harmony College directors stream last year for more work on diagnostic listening skills in rehearsal (initial response: yes that’s very important, let’s do more on it!), and then kind of snowballed from there.

The more you think about the ways and contexts in which chorus directors have to listen, the more it asserts itself as the central skill of the job. It’s more important in many ways than actual conducting skills, because however elegant your technique looks, it doesn’t do any good unless you can effectively hear what you’re getting in response to your conducting. Whilst if you can get your ears into the detail of how your chorus is singing, your gestures intuitively adapt themselves to those needs.

LABBS/BABS Directors Weekend: Initial Impressions

The opening plenary: Theo working with Silver LiningThe opening plenary: Theo working with Silver Lining

The weekend just gone saw what I suspect might be the largest conductor training event this country has ever seen. 120 directors/assistant directors and 2 choruses per day from both the women’s and men’s British barbershop associations gathered in Coventry for their first ever fully joint educational event.

(The Association of British Choral Directors Conventions are bigger than this to be sure, but they don’t include practical, hands-on instruction for everyone there. And conducting training in higher education usually works with much much smaller numbers.)

As you can imagine, I have lots to reflect on, and many things I have learned will be finding their way into my blog posts over the coming weeks. In the first instance, I’m just trying to process what we achieved, and capture some of the big-picture learnings on the way past. If much of what follows sounds more organisational than musical or educational, that’s because that was the primary challenge of the weekend, but it was fundamental to allowing the music and education to happen.

Tuning is a Performance Indicator, not a Goal

So here’s another one in the genre of ‘if you haven’t got time to read the post, the title says it all anyway’. I’ve had a few conversations recently about my preference to avoid talking about intonation in rehearsal if I can possibly avoid it, and it seems that some people equate this with not caring about intonation. So I wanted to clarify things a bit.

First off, I love the sound of in-tune singing. And by this I mean both singing that maintains tonal integrity (key note staying in the same place) and singing in which all the parts are in tune with each other. Both horizontal and vertical in-tuneness, if you like. And it’s not just the way that good tuning is more consonant and cleaner to listen to at an acoustic level, it’s all the way that it brings with it beauties of tone colour - clarity, ring, luminosity – and expressiveness that you may not hear at other times.

Soapbox: Stop Blaming the Singers for Pitch Loss When You’re Not Conducting in Tune

soapbox
So I seem to have produced a title today from the school of ‘Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway’ – i.e. one that gives the entire content in one sentence. So it you’re okay to say, ‘Right, got it, I’ll stop blaming the singers for pitch loss,’ then you don’t need to read any more of it. If, however, you’re not sure what I mean by this, then the rest of the post may yet be helpful.

As anyone who has worked with me will know, I very rarely raise the issue of the tonal centre dropping while rehearsing or coaching. It’s not that I don’t care about it, it’s just that I don’t regard it as helpful to draw singers’ attention to it. It just makes them worried, and the first thing that anxiety does to the voice is add tension around the neck and tongue and undermine connection with the breath – that is, it adds all the things that, vocally, make it more likely that you’ll go flat.

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