(Rehearsal) Planning for the Unknown

During the abcd Initial Conducting Course I led earlier this year, I had several conversations with conductors about how to manage rehearsal planning in the particular circumstance that you don’t yet know the much about the choir you’re planning for. How do you work out what will be appropriate repertoire when you don’t yet know the skills and experience of the singers you will be working with?

This is a circumstance that can affect anyone who is lined up with a conducting job they’ve not yet started, but it is felt most strongly in early career musicians who don’t yet have a fund of previous similar experiences to draw on.

So, the first thing is to do what profiling you can. For those moving to new teaching jobs, the age of the children you will be working with gives you quite a lot of information about what to expect, and you can also glean a good deal from what kind of repertoire your predecessor was using with them. If they have any recordings of recent performances, this will also tell you a lot.

Brief hiatus...

Just to let you know not to expect new blog posts for a couple of weeks. My attention is going to be on other things for a goodly chunk of August, and I am taking the opportunity for a proper digital detox while I'm at it.

Normal service will resume later in the month. I'm reasonably confident that you won't run out of stuff to browse in my archives in the meantime...

Music-Team Training at Junction 14

jcn14musteamI spent Saturday with the Music Team from Junction 14 chorus, delivering a bespoke workshop that touched on all three of the themes I offer for this kind of training, but with its main emphasis on Effective Rehearsal Skills. The team has welcomed two new section leaders into their posts within the last few months, so it was a good moment both to offer support to the less experienced members and to help the whole team feel more integrated as a unit.

One of the areas the team had identified in advance as something they’d like help with was knowing what to listen for in section rehearsals, and their director Hannah had suggested a checklist of target issues might be useful. It took very little time for the combined brains of the team to compile a healthy collection of things they could usefully attend to, and we then went through each systematically identifying what would be the compliment you’d give if you heard it being done well and what would be the to-do you’d ask for if it needed improving.

On Heroes and Literature Review

When Doug Harrington was teaching a tag to the assembled delegates at LABBS Harmony College back in April, he passed on some advice* that he’d been given by Jim Cline, a long-time barbershopper who had shared a good deal of wisdom and craft with the young Harrington brothers to help them on their way. It got me thinking about how and why we cite our heroes, and the ways that this functions within musical traditions in much the same way that citations and references function within academic writing.

When we choose communicate an idea we have learned from someone else, and to include in that communication where we learned it, we are doing several things at once.

Taking Big Steps with Capital Connection

Royce's Very Useful ExerciseRoyce's Very Useful ExerciseA warm and sunny Sunday afternoon took my down to Ruislip to work with my friends at Capital Connection on the new contest package they are preparing for the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers convention in the autumn. It’s a themed package that pairs a reasonably well-established song in the barbershop contest repertoire with a brand new arrangement by the chorus’s director Debi Cox. I had worked with her earlier in the year on the latter, as part of my arranger consultancy services, so it was rewarding to go and see the chart on the next stage of its journey.

The songs were at the stage where the technical demands and the overall concepts were well under control, so it was time to dig deeper for shape, colour, nuance. Debi had built in some wonderful opportunities for exploiting different vocal colours in the set-up to her arrangement, so we started out exploring the contrasting soundworlds those implied.

Miscellaneous Barbershop Arranging Thoughts

swipeOn reflection, these are all specific examples of general principles I have written about elsewhere. But they are points that have come to my notice through listening to performances and working with ensembles as details with which arrangers can help singers produce better performances with less rehearsal time.

  1. Keep the lead off 7ths. Obviously, if the melody is on the 7th of the chord, the lead will sing it. But if you want to write a swipe that involves the lead coming off the melody note, you have a choice. If you have them move upwards onto the 7th of a barbershop 7th chord, especially if it is in the mid-upper part of their range, my observation is that they will almost invariably treat it melodically, and swell into it. As a result, the 7th will pop out of a completely unbalanced chord.

    This is the case even with really quite good groups. I heard several instances of this with quartets scoring in the 70s at BABS Convention this year. Indeed, it was here that I spotted it as an issue: one unbalanced chord from an otherwise good quartet is just a momentary distraction, but three in an afternoon is a pattern.

On Hypnagogia

Talking of not romanticising creativity makes me want to celebrate Sally Swain...Talking of not romanticising creativity makes me want to celebrate Sally Swain...Just sharing with you a nice penny-drop moment I had earlier in the year when a friend shared a short article on hypnagogia. No, I didn’t know the word previously either, but I was delighted to learn it, as when something has a word you know that other people share the experience of it too.

I had long been a bit perplexed that, whilst the standard descriptions of sleep phases placed REM sleep in the depths of the night, preceded and followed by deeper phases of sleep, I frequently experience involuntary rapid eye movements right at the edge of sleep - as I doze off or while waking up. This is sometimes, though not always, accompanied by light dreaming - and I can often wake myself up by being surprised at the dream images. Now I know this state is called hypnagogia, I can stop being perplexed by it.

Technique, Confidence, Identity...

I had an interesting question from a conductor recently that struck me as one to reflect on in this blog. It is intensely practical - the kind of issue that choirs and conductors the world over are grappling with all the time - but also demands some depth of thought, as it is as much about the human as the musical dimensions of choral singing.

Here goes:

The church choir where I am a part-time conductor is ageing. To address this, my fellow part-time conductor started a children's choir a couple of years back, and in that time quite a number of children – more girls than boys – have been choristers, though depressingly few have stayed for long.

I'm sure this is a common phenomenon, largely born of the wider choice of activities and attractions available to children ("...compared to my day!") Apart from the perceived lack of staying power, though, what strikes me is how little noise they do make when joining the adults to sing in a service. Any thoughts on how that can be addressed?

See what I mean? Anyone involved in choral music will have immediate empathy; we know this scenario.

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