Choral

On Saying the Same Things Every Week – Again

As I write this title, I realise there’s a pleasant self-referentiality in revisiting this particular subject. Last time I wrote about it, my point was that, instead of getting frustrated with their singers when they find themselves repeating instructions, a director could more usefully consider why their instructions aren’t working and explore different ways to achieve their ends.

Today’s thought shares the point that it is counter-productive for directors to get frustrated by saying the same things week after week, but suggests that this is because sometimes repetition is exactly what is needed.

On the Belief-Capacity Relationship and Choral Stereotypes: A Case Study

Some recent email correspondence about an arrangement of mine turned into a fascinating practical case study in a couple of areas I enjoy theorising about. Normally in this situation I’d make a point of anonymising my correspondent, but since he or she didn’t actually sign any of their emails, it’s kind of a moot point. (This isn’t actually relevant to the story; I just wanted to share the oddness with you!)

Anyway, whoever wrote to me is a chorus director whose chorus had recently purchased copies of my arrangement of Happy Together without consulting him/her, and he/she was dismayed to discover it features a good deal of bass melody. The leads in his/her chorus apparently cannot do harmonies, despite many years of trying, so would I give him permission to re-arrange it with the leads on the tune.

Penny-Drop Moment

This is going to be a short one, but it deserves a post in its own right for the sense of revelation it afforded me when the idea plopped into my head.

One of the things I had been thinking about a good deal over the summer is keeping articulation small and precise, and in particular keeping the jaw at rest while singing. This is one of the things that Sean Bui worked on with the Telfordaires in June when he came to us for a coaching session, and it has proved both transformative and challenging. Until we started applying this as a means to reduce tension and improve resonance, we hadn’t realised how much the chorus had been accustomed to experiencing muscular engagement as part of emotional intensity.

Ensemble Singing and the Illusion of Oneness

The Composer’s Voice by Edward Cone is a classic of music theory that, though flawed in many ways (as all startlingly innovative theories are), still fuels my thinking about music meaning and its illusions 25 years after I first read it. One of the flaws is how misleading the title is, since the book breaks out of the dominant post-Romantic cliché of music being all about the composer’s message to the listener, and gives a way to hear instead the virtual voices the composer has created.

The key concept he introduces is that of musical personae: virtual characters emerging from the music, whose story the music tells. There are all kinds of interesting questions this raises in instrumental music – how you identify personae, how you interpret the narratives – but his starting point is the simpler case of song. When you have lyrics to sing, it is clear that you are representing a character, a fictional being at a certain point in a story, and the clues as to your backstory and setting can be found in both the words and the musical setting.

More on the Use of Language in Rehearsal

I know, I know, it’s a theme I keep coming back to. But along with the physical posture and gesture a conductor uses, their choice of words to address their ensemble makes up the much of the fabric of lived experience in that group. And even the most disciplined director who manages to minimise their verbal instructions needs to say things sometimes.

So, my usual tack through this theme is to encourage directors and coaches to give positive to-dos rather than name the problem. Don’t verbalise the diagnosis (‘delivery is a bit ploddy’), go straight to the intervention (‘sing with more flow’).

Keep doing this, it’s good advice.

Healing Us-and-Themness in Choirs 2: Stewardship

My last post was in response to a reader’s question about helping a chorus that had suffer a split move beyond the us-and-them wrangling that had led to the break and move forward together. My theme that time was Values: finding a way that the chorus could agree about what they collectively hold most dear as a set of principles to drive their behaviours.

Since receiving his query, I read a really powerful post by a barbershop friend John Donehower about the experience of someone he sang with many years ago, but who had left the chapter, never to return. I’ll quote the key passage at some length because I don’t think my paraphrase would really do justice to it:

Healing Us-and-Themness in Choirs 1: Values

A while back I had an email from a reader who has been drawing on my previous posts about how to prevent us-and-themness in choirs, with all its attendant difficulties. He had been finding the strategies useful in part, but was struggling with a situation in which his chorus had been so riven that it had actually split, with one faction leaving to start a new chorus.

He found himself as long-term interim director of those left behind, grappling with continued us-and-them behaviours, which were making it hard to heal and move on.

My first thought in response to his mail was to think about building an explicit framework of values. When I’ve written about this before I’ve tended to focus on the power of a director’s vocabulary and behaviours to shape a choir’s ethos, but in this case it feels like what is needed is to flush out the singers’ belief systems.

Growth, Stagnation, and Affection

When I wrote recently about my theory of affection, I had in the back of my mind a particular application in the relationship between choir and director. I was thinking about how, if a conductor expresses frustration with their choir’s progress (or, rather, the lack thereof), you know that unless they find a way out of that place, their tenure with the choir is likely not to last.

It’s a common enough problem – all choirs go through phases of rapid development and of treading water or even retrenchment as their individual and collective circumstances change over time. And part of a choral director’s resilience is weathering the patches when everything stalls with enough patience to get through to when it all picks up again.

But thinking about the conductor-choir bond in terms of affection shed some new light on it for me. If, as I suggest, affection the results when someone lets you make a difference to them, then there is a particular danger when a director feels they are unable to make a difference: they will start to care less.

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