Bright Spots Coaching

One of the many useful bits of advice in Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch was, to use their terminology, ‘find the bright spots’. Rather than focusing on the problem we need to solve, they suggest, it can be much more effective to identify where things are going well and replicate that behaviour.

It is a simple idea, and thus easy to implement immediately, but it also has depth to it – the more you think about it, the more it offers. Which is why I’m writing about it – to tease out some of its ramifications, and to work out how they can help us in the choral rehearsal.

The morning after I read this bit of the book, I saw Mareike Buck use the technique beautifully in her warm-up with The Rhubarbs in Bonn. She remarked that one particular chorus member was using a gestural technique they were clearly familiar with to aid vocal production. That person looked pleased to have the compliment, and everyone else joined in the gesture.

Switch: Chip and Dan Heath on Behavioural Change

SwitchSwitch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard is a book I picked up on impulse when I was buying another book by the same authors recommended by a friend. I ended up reading this one first for the simple reason it was a bit smaller and lighter and would fit in my handbag on a trip I took just after it arrived.

I’ve read and enjoyed (and indeed blogged about) ideas by Chip and Dan Heath before, and this book is similarly helpful, practical and cheerfully written. Their strength is in synthesis – bringing together ideas from other authors and presenting them in ways that are memorable and usable. So, the cast of sources they cite includes names already familiar to regular readers here, such as Kotter and Dweck, but I’d say the Heaths still add value in the clarity with which they put together their advice.

It’s almost as if they’ve read their own previous work on what makes ideas sticky.

Explorations in Musical Shape with Cheshire Chord Company


After a series of cancellations on Thursday, Friday and Saturday last week due to weather-related travel disruptions, I was delighted finally to be able to fulfil a coaching commitment on Sunday. My friends at Cheshire Chord Company had invited me back to work through a couple of songs they are currently learning.

We spent the morning on barbershop swing standard ‘That’s Life’. This is a classic chart that always comes over enjoyably in performance, but is often quite generalised in its expression. There is, we discovered, a good deal more scope than you might have guessed both for creating a large-scale arc and for finding nuance in the detail.

Coaching with The Rhubarbs

Classic warm-up pic, this one with natural lightClassic warm-up pic, this one with natural light

The weekend saw me heading off to Germany to work with barbershoppers in Bonn. The plan had been to spend Saturday afternoon with quartet Note-4-Note and Sunday with their chorus, The Rhubarbs, but the winter’s cold viruses had other ideas, and so I ended up with rather more time for sight-seeing time than usual. The Drachenfels makes a wonderful afternoon out, but it was still a pity to miss working with the quartet.

Looking back on the chorus day on Sunday, I am quite astonished at how productive it was. We visited areas including vocal skills, aural skills, story-telling/characterisation, directing skills and stage-craft, as well as the regular problem-solving of details in the repertoire that a coaching session would usually cover. Oh, and re-stacking the chorus by voice timbre.

Continuing the Journey with Bristol A Cappella

Warm-up pic with hats and coatsWarm-up pic with hats and coats

After my visit to Signature last week, I took the train across to Bristol for another session with my friends at Bristol A Cappella on the Sunday. They had spent the Saturday working with performance coach Sandra Lea-Riley, so I came prepared to spend at least some of the time helping them process and consolidate what they had covered with a coach they had just worked with for the first time. It’s great to get input from different people, but it’s important that we don’t stand in each other’s light.

Sandra had done a great job with them – really transformed their levels of individual expressiveness – and we had some useful discussions reflecting on how she had achieved it, and how they could continue to develop these skills and transfer them into the rest of the repertoire. She had also identified a need to develop their techniques of articulation/enunciation, which chimed with their feedback from the Nailsea Festival in the autumn, and so helping with that became my primary task for the day.

Developing New Music with Signature

Name that tune...Name that tune...

Saturday was the second of a series of visits to Signature Singers to work with them on a new arrangement they are preparing for LABBS Convention in October. Last time I saw them, they had only just wrapped themselves round the notes and words, so we were doing deep groundwork, building the vocal and musical foundations for the song to be built on.

Two months on, and things were, unsurprisingly, much more developed. We still had a little undergrowth clearing to do in places, especially coordinating parts at structural boundaries and tempo changes. But in general we were getting much more into the expressive detail.

Gesture is a well-documented rehearsal technique to help singers feel musical shape, for purposes of both accuracy and expression. (Ramona Wis, for instance, wrote a splendid PhD dissertation on this, using Lakoff and Johnsons’ theory of metaphor.) It has all kinds of benefits – helping the singers get inside the musical effects, helping them coordinate to each other, allowing the coach to identify who needs extra help to find their way into it.

Coaching The Venus Effect

VenusEffectMy last coaching commitment before fleeing the country at the end of November was a coaching session with The Venus Effect. I didn’t have time to blog about it at the time, so this post doubles as a coaching report and a test of the comprehensibility of my notes made in haste at the time.

We had talked at the European Barbershop Convention in October about working together, and I was eager to start before my big trip as there were some specific techniques I wanted to share that were the kinds of things that yield results by regular use. So the earlier we got them into their practice routines, the better.

Bristol A Cappella: Next Steps

And this is why I chose that warm-up pic for my last post...And this is why I chose that warm-up pic for my last post...

Last time I worked with Bristol A Cappella, they were preparing for the mixed barbershop chorus contest at BABS Convention in May. This performance went very well, and they were rewarded with significantly higher scores than their first attempt the previous year. Buoyed up by this success, they are striding purposefully into the future with plans to participate in several competitions over the next six months or so.

The first of these is the Nailsea Festival later this month, in which they are entering two classes. This visit we revisited briefly their material from BABS for the barbershop class, but focused most of our efforts on a set of two songs, arranged and directed respectively by their director Iain Hallam and their assistant director, James Horsburgh.

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