Self-Talk: A Practical Project

This is a post written for a particular set of people whom I’d like to help, arising out of a specific form of language I heard in their midst on a particular occasion. But it could have been written for all kinds of other people on different days - it is a very normal turn of phrase. So I’m sharing with the world to help anyone else who finds themselves using it.

Self-talk refers to the language we use to process our own experience of doing something (in our context, making music, though it applies also to all kinds of other skilled activities). It can refer to either the directed, purposeful instructions we give ourselves as we do it, or to the ways we process and frame our experience as we reflect on it. Hence, our choice of vocabulary for our self-talk has a significant impact on how we go about deploying our skills, and how we feel about ourselves as we do it.

The bit of self-talk we are going to focus on today is starting a sentence, ‘I struggle with...’ The project is to replace it with the phrase, ‘I would like to be better at...’

Choice Theory for Choral Directors

GlasserI recently read William Glasser’s book Choice Theory at the suggestion of a friend, and it has been a thought-provoking exercise. There is a good deal in the book that is open to critique - to the extent that if I didn’t trust the judgement of the person who recommended it, I may not have bothered to finish it - but there is also a good deal of humane and sensible advice in it.

So, I’m glad I did persist with it, and I’m prepared likewise to cautiously recommend it in turn, with the caveat that you need to be able to cope with an argument that quite often overstates its case and makes unsubstantiated (indeed, unsubstantiatable) assertions. If you’re not sure you want to cope with that kind of thing, here’s a summary of what I learned from it...

Back with Brunel

Brunelsep16I spent Saturday with my friends at Brunel Harmony in Saltash. They’ve seen a lot of changes since I was with them last year, and will be heading to LABBS Convention in the autumn with a rather smaller chorus than last year and a new director out front. And the changes had meant they were slightly behind themselves in terms of the preparation schedule they might have chosen.

But don’t let any of those circumstances worry you: they are in fine fettle and good voice. There is an impressiveness to the body of sound you can generate with a large chorus, but the clarity a smaller group can produce has its own exciting qualities. And notwithstanding the changes, there is still plenty of continuity of experience, which allowed us to build on last year’s work on breath and characterisation.

Performing Silence

butterflyI have written before about the various musical functions of silences with the flow of a piece of music, and thus why we should respect notated rests. But I thought it worth spending a little time thinking about how the performer can do this. We spend a lot of our rehearsal time focusing on how to achieve the bits of the music that sound aloud, but tend to assume that the silent bits will look after themselves.

But the not-sound of a musical silence is not necessarily the same as all the not-sounds we emit (or, rather, don't emit) all the time when we're not singing, playing and conversing with people. They carry meanings created by and within the musical contexts they appear in that make positive contributions to the audience's experience, and thus need performing positively.

Conducting Variable Metres

I mentioned recently an email with a couple of good, nitty-gritty questions about conducting technique. Having looked last time at how to wean an inexperienced choir onto needing only a single prep beat to come in on an anacrusis, today we’re onto a more complex conducting task:

How do you conduct something such as Gibbons Short Service, where there is no consistent number of beats to the bar?

This is an interesting question, as the available approaches are inflected by somewhat conflicting questions of technique, pragmatism and musical context.

I know conductors who would see the correct answer as: you change your conducting pattern every bar to give the right number of beats. And, whilst this is a sensible answer in that it will make sense to modern musicians accustomed to modern barring and modern beat patterns, I’m not sure it’s the most helpful answer to someone facing this challenge for the first time.

Getting to the heart of things with Red Rock Harmony

redrocksep16The post-summer-holiday coaching season leaped into action on Saturday with a return visit to Red Rock Harmony in Teignmouth. As I reported back in June, they are preparing for their first experience in national contest at the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers convention in October. It was cheering to be able to let them know how much progress they had made since my last visit.

With seven weeks to go before contest, there were a few moments where technical details needed sorting out, but our work was much more focused on integrating technical control with their imaginative understanding of the song. Tessitura and voicing are so often chosen by composer and arranger to evoke a certain emotional intensity, and a commitment to the narrative meaning will thus supply the level of bodily commitment the lines need to sound resonant and well-supported.

Conducting Anacruses

I recently received an email from a conductor I worked with earlier in the year with two really good questions. They thing I liked about them was that they were at one level nitty-gritty practical questions about the detail of what you do with your choir, and at another opened out into general principles with a much wider applicability than the specific technical instance he was asking about. Perfect blog-post material.

Here’s one of them:

Bringing in a less able group on an up beat has been problematic. Would you advise sticking to the proper method, and educating them, or take the line of least resistance and give them a down beat "for nothing"?

See what I mean? I’ll start with talking through the step-by-step process I’d use in this situation, then explain some of the thinking behind it, and then finish with some thoughts on the ‘line of least resistance’ dynamic, which pops up in so many different circumstances.

Self-Confidence and Self-Talk

I have been thinking recently a good deal about self-belief and conquering the demon of Impostor Syndrome. It is something that many choral leaders grapple with on and off, not just when they are new and inexperienced, but throughout their lives. It is like a chronic condition that you get under control for a good long time, and then something triggers a flare-up just when you were least expecting it.

And it’s something that mostly people deal with alone. The lovely thing about working with choirs is that you always have company in your music-making. But if you’re worried that you are letting your singers down, or that they aren’t satisfied with your efforts, you are immediately isolated from what is usually one of your primary support networks.

So this post is partly to say: you’re not alone. Many people feel like this. And you’re doing fine. The fact that you feel responsible to your ensemble and care about their experience shows that you are on the case. It’s the people who never doubt their wonderfulness who should (but don’t) worry.

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