Choral

Developing Our Lexicon

One segment of our working brain-dumpOne segment of our working brain-dumpToday’s title is a direct quote from the inimitable Mo Field, who as Guest Educator at the LABBS Directors Weekend last summer, invited the assembled chorus directors to consider the kinds of vocabulary and turns of phrase they habitually use with their singers. What kind of values do they encode? What underlying messages do they give about what you care about?

Re-reading Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code earlier this year gave a nice cross-reference to his analysis of successful coaches. Distinctive and pithy catch-phrases that capture central principles of praxis are one of the characteristic behaviours that he documents.

On Repetition

The French for rehearsal is ‘répétition’, which captures an interestingly different aspect of the process than the English term’s implications of ‘trial run’. Things need doing more than once to secure the combination of mental concept and motor actions we experience as ‘doing it right’.

But simply repeating things isn’t enough. It is easy to spend a lot of rehearsal time repeating the same errors and inadequacies you are already quite good at. Improving the music requires a change in behaviour.

This process of making changes, then routinising them is a recurring theme of this blog over the years. I’ve looked at it via Kotter’s model of organisation change, through the Dilts Pyramid, and most directly through my model of the Intervention and Enforcement Cycles (which itself crystallised in the wake of reading Doug Lemov’s ideas on effective classroom habits). Oh, and then with additions from Chip and Dan Heath last year.

Slump Week: How to recognise it, and how to cope with it.

Attention span graphAttention span graphSome years ago I wrote about this graph of attention spans in the context of managing interest in a musical form. But the use I put it to more routinely is teaching people about planning rehearsals: understanding when you are likely to get the best and worst quality attention over the course of a rehearsal allows you to plan your activities to make the best use of the cognitive resources available.

On Choral Courage

Having recently shared David McEachern’s wise observation that you can’t necessarily choose to be confident, but you can choose to be courageous, I’d like to share a story of choral courage I witnessed about a year ago.

Those of you who know me in real life are aware that last January my mother died suddenly and unexpectedly. She seemed happy and healthy when she spoke to my brother on the Sunday, to me on the Monday, and had lunch with her sister on the Tuesday. Then she failed to turn up to choir practice on Thursday. She never missed choir practice without warning.

Setting the Tone with Jordan Travis

The collected directors, led in song by Jordan TravisThe collected directors, led in song by Jordan Travis

I spent the weekend at the British Association of Barbershop Singers’ annual Directors Academy, this year led by guest educator Jordan Travis. At the start of the weekend he framed his approach using the metaphor of harmony that is central to barbershop culture: musical harmony as both cause and expression of social harmony.

As the weekend progressed, though, a more specific metaphor seemed to emerge in his twin interests in vocal technique on one hand and chorus culture and values on the other. This crystallised on the Sunday morning while we were analysing the warm-up he had led the delegates through, and he talked about the ways that the warm-up ‘sets the tone’ for the rehearsal to come in both dimensions.

On Vocal Confidence

Since the start of the year is a traditional time for goal-setting, I had conversations earlier in the month with various singers about what they would like to get better at during 2019. And there’s a theme that has come up in several times that I’d like to reflect on for a while, and to consider how best to support people working on it: vocal confidence.

You can see why people identify it as a goal: it is very natural to want to feel more secure in what you’re doing. What is less immediately clear is what produces this feeling. Because as I’ve noted before, confidence is not the same as competence - your objective skill level and how you feel about your performance are connected to an extent, but it’s by no means a direct or linear relationship. And sometimes the relationship is even inverted.

The Christmas Song Paradox

My title today refers to a paradox relating to Christmas repertoire in general, rather than to the specific song of that title. But now I’ve mentioned it, I am going to be self-indulgent and get a few things off my chest.

  1. Why the definite article? Other Christmas songs are available
  2. Nobody dresses up like Eskimos for Christmas. For sure there are all kinds of wintry clichés associated with the festival that have little or nothing to do either with its pagan origins or its appropriation to celebrate a Palestinian-born Messiah. (For example, I don’t recall the gospels mentioning penguins along with the ox and the ass). But the Eskimos line is clearly there for no other purpose than to rhyme with ‘Jack Frost nipping at your nose’.

    And you wouldn’t think it should be too hard to find something else, less absurd, that would fit. Chose, crows, doze, froze, goes, hellos, joes, lows, pose, prose, rose, sews, shows, suppose, toes, those, woes…all those possibilities…

    Yuletide carols being sung by a choir
    And played through speakers made by Bose

    Okay, so this doesn’t pass the ‘less absurd’ test, but it is likely to be more factually accurate.

  3. Everybody knows that candles and some fairy lights help to keep the season bright. Turkeys and mistletoe have their seasonal uses, but not typically as lighting solutions.

Clarity of Concept, Clarity of Gesture

I recently had some correspondence with a director who asked me for feedback on her technique after I’d been working with her chorus, and it took us into territory that feels like other directors might also be interested in. So, I’m doing the further thinking about it I promised to do publicly here.

It started with an observation I made about how she came over in action:

I observe that when your musical concept is clearer, your gestures are more neat and precise and it takes less effort to communicate. So it may be that when you are finding the physical coordination more difficult, that is a signal that you need to clarify your musical concepts more. That is a working hypothesis rather than an absolute, but one which there is no downside to exploring.

She replied that she found this plausible, and that in fact it was sometimes developing the musical concept itself that presented the challenge:

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