Coaching

Director Coaching with Junction 14

Adjusting the conducting plane:: "Hold your plate of music low enough that you can pile it high and still see over the profiteroles"Adjusting the conducting plane:: "Hold your plate of music low enough that you can pile it high and still see over the profiteroles"Thursday evening took me down to Milton Keynes to work with the directing team of Junction 14 chorus. Both MD Hannah and her assistant Debbie have been regular participants in LABBS director training events, but they were after the extra depth and personalisation you get from being coached as a director along with the singers you work with regularly. This bring not only more one-to-one time, but the chance to enrol the chorus into the process of developing their directors.

For the truism that what a director does is directly mirrored by the chorus is balanced by a less often articulated truth that much of what a director habitually does is shaped by their singers. There are all kinds of interesting co-dependencies between a conductor and their ensemble, some of which are really helpful, others counter-productive. You can re-set the latter more readily by working with both ends of the relationship at the same time.

Musicking with the White Rosettes

WRjun19

This may prove to be a tricky post to write. Not for any emotional complications – it tells of an entirely cheerful and purposeful occasion – nor for conceptual conundrums – we all knew what we were doing and we did it well. The problem is the entirely practical one of how do I write an account of a coaching session that was pretty much entirely about specific musical detail without actually talking about the music?

I run into this problem to an extent every time I go to coach an ensemble on a new arrangement that they will want to reveal at some point in the future, but there’s usually some generalisable technical points to distract you with while I’m avoiding naming the song. Is vagueblogging a thing?

And of course it would be unthinkable to go and work with the UK’s most consistently successful barbershop chorus and not blog about it. That would be silly.

Continuing the Journey with Norwich Harmony

Obligatory warm-up action picObligatory warm-up action pic

One of the joyful things about being invited to work with a group several times over the course of a few years is the opportunity to see them develop. I have visited Norwich Harmony in late Spring or early summer before, but I don’t recall hearing them sounding so assured on the music they are preparing for the autumn at this stage previously. It wasn’t just that the singing was clean and resonant, with very few details getting smudged, it was that everyone seemed up-for-it and undaunted by any challenge I threw at them. This is a very satisfying way to spend a Saturday.

I asked their director Alison Thompson to what she could attribute this upgrade in achievement, and she talked through various areas of specific technical skill they had been working on. Behind this, though, were more fundamental points: having the confidence that she had found an approach that would work for them, and being relentless in her pursuit of them.

Team-coaching with Fascinating Rhythm

Riser-top view of the team in actionRiser-top view of the team in actionRegular readers will know by now that Fascinating Rhythm have been leading the way amongst British barbershop choruses by bringing newly commissioned music to the contest stage every year since 2015. Last weekend was their annual retreat at which they got their teeth into their 5th consecutive new package, and for the first time they decided to invite me to coach for a day alongside their regular coach Sally McLean rather than bring us in separately as they have hitherto.

I was going to say that fortunately their regular coach and their regular arranger have very compatible approaches to music and performance, but that makes it sound like it’s luck or coincidence. Thinking about it, though, it would be more surprising if they chose people to work with regularly who had incongruent artistic attitudes.

Aurora Revisited

We forgot to take a selfie so Helen spliced us together afterwards...We forgot to take a selfie so Helen spliced us together afterwards...Last Sunday afternoon brought Aurora quartet back for more coaching, to follow up the session we had back in March. They had clearly been working diligently since last time there were here, and it was most cheering to be able to tell them how readily apparent the improvement was to someone who hadn’t heard them in the interim.

Of course one always intends for rehearsals to be making things better, but when you are in the thick of it you can’t always tell whether your incremental changes are adding up. So it's useful to hear from someone who only hears you intermittently.

They came in with a helpfully specific list of things they wanted help with - pacing the intro to one song, trouble-shooting some unusual chords in another – which, almost more than the greater consistency of sound, signalled that they are now taking more control over their development.

Building the Arc with Bristol A Cappella

The warm-up is going swimmingly...The warm-up is going swimmingly...On Saturday I went down to help Bristol A Cappella with their preparation for the mixed chorus context at the British Association of Barbershop Singers Convention later this month. They were going to be working with Performance specialist Kirsty Williams on Sunday, so I could focus on musical and vocal issues, knowing that she would bring their focus back out onto their audience the next day.

(Of course I find it hard to talk about an interesting chord without considering what it will do to a listener, and there were places where choreography could conveniently be leveraged to help vocal technique. But the generalisation stands that there were things I could safely put to one side knowing that Kirsty would have them in her sights the next day.)

Atomic Quartet Coaching

AtomicI spent Monday afternoon until mid-afternoon on Tuesday with Atomic Quartet, who had come up from Cornwall for an intensive bout of coaching both as quartet and as individual singers. They had initially suggested doing PVIs (‘personal voice instruction’ for those unfamiliar with the acronym) on the Monday, followed by quartet coaching the next day, but I inflected this model into a more flexible approach that shifted between individual and ensemble work more fluidly.

I remembered the way that Rivka Golani taught viola at the Birmingham Conservatoire. All her students were entitled to a certain number of hours of one-to-one tuition as part of their course, but rather than seeing them one at a time, she used to have all of them together for one day a week, observing as she worked with each in turn. Her students spoke very positively of this experience, and I observed strong bonds of trust between them.

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.

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