Choral

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.

My Theory of Affection

When musicians see the phrase ‘theory of affection’ their thoughts turn to 17th-century concepts of mimesis and the portrayal of emotion in music. But, interesting as that is, my purpose today is wider than the period-specific world of Affektenlehre, concerning instead the general human question of what makes us feel fondness.

It’s something I’ve thought about blogging on for many years, but there was always something that seemed more of the moment. I have been piqued into at last by reading something that for a moment looked like it was going to articulate my personal theory in more formal terms, but which in fact turned out to be a near miss.

Chip and Dan Heath report on the work of Harry T. Reis, a social psychologist who aspired to create a universal theory of relationships. He placed responsiveness at the heart of what creates interpersonal bonds, and outlined three ways in which this works:

The Quality Director

One of the great rewards, as I have remarked before, of working with amateur musicians is that you get to meet and learn from professionals in all kinds of other arenas. I had one such learning experience during my trip to Germany in April, when I had the opportunity to chat at some length with Stef Schmidt, who works, between her intensive bouts of barbershopping, as the director for quality in a manufacturing company.

She was very interesting on the subject of how to engage people in solving existing problems, and, more importantly, in getting them to help prevent future problems before they happen. I immediately wanted to interrogate her on how she uses these skills in her rehearsal processes, and this post is my opportunity to reflect on the notes I took after our conversation.

Bucket-list breathing

This is a dual purpose post. Its first aim is to fulfil a request to explain an approach to breathing taught by Jim Henry at the LABBS Directors Weekend 3 years ago for someone who wasn’t at it. Its second is to reflect on my experience teaching that approach to others, from which I have drawn some wider conclusions about teaching.

So, first to the method. Dr Jim called this 1-2-3 breathing, as it focuses your attention to breathing in 3 stages. First, you breathe in down to the bottom of your lungs, letting your waist and lower ribs expand (1), then to the middle of your chest allowing your ribs and mid-back widen (2), then finally top up beneath your breast-bone (3). So far, so good, you think, this will get a nice full, deep breath and prevent clavicular breathing.

The bit I particularly love about this approach, though, comes next: you let the air out (whether breathing or singing) in the same order it came in. So you use the air at the bottom of your lungs first, squeezing your waist in (1), then your mid-chest, allowing your ribs to contract (2), and then use the top-up under the breast-bone last (3). This guarantees that you keep your support in play right to the end of the breath, and prevents that visible deflation of posture you sometimes see towards the ends of phrases.

On Asking Questions in Rehearsal

At last year’s A Cappella Spring Fest I ran a session for choir members about how to get the most out of rehearsals. It was partly about how to prepare for and review rehearsals in between to consolidate, but also about things you can do during the rehearsal itself. One specific item we covered was about asking questions in rehearsal – when and how to do it. I’m coming back to write about this now because I’ve had several conversations about it recently and so it seems a good moment to share those discussions.

From a director’s perspective, questions from choir members are a mixed blessing. On one hand they give you really clear information about the singers’ needs, and how the whole process is being experienced from within the ensemble. This is information we want and need. On the other hand, they slow the rehearsal down by increasing the talk:music ratio, and their timing often distracts the whole choir from the rehearsal focus of the moment.

So, the question is: how do we gather that vital information without breaking the flow of the rehearsal?

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