Excellence

The Robot/Human Dialectic

There’s an exercise I like to do with ensembles in which they toggle between singing as if they were a robot and as if they were a human being. It’s interesting because you think before you start that it’s primarily about expressiveness – turning both vocal and facial empathy for the music on and off. Which it is, but it also turns out to be about technical control. The robot mode typically displays not only a more angular rather than flowing sense of shape, but also much cleaner synchronisation of rhythm and word sounds. You lose something by turning off your humanity, but you gain something too.

I recently had a conversation with an individual singer about managing his relationship with these two states. He generally gives his primary focus to accuracy (an attitude that you have to like), but feels this can result in a robotic delivery: ‘I don’t think I know how to sing a melody like a Lead, while still doing all the stuff on placement, timing etc,’ he said.

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.

Exploring Character and Narrative in Norwich

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I spent Saturday with my friends at Norwich Harmony further developing the contest set I had last worked with them on back in May. Unsurprisingly, given the elapsed time between visits, we could now build on the work we did last time on rhythm and harmony to explore how these elements contributed to the communicative dimensions of characterisation and story-telling.

We approached their up-tempo number as if it were a movie. Some songs strongly suggest a time, a place and even a filmic genre, and once you locate a song in this way, you have a common fund of imagery and associations that you can all draw on. One of the disadvantages of a cappella is that you don’t have a range of instrumental timbres to enhance the vividness of your performance; the commensurate advantage is that you have the imaginative freedom to build in opulent special effects to your concept without all the fuss of hiring an actual orchestra.

Tag-Singing, Inhabitance, Ratio, and Flow

With thanks to Manoj for the pic: also do check out his tagsWith thanks to Manoj for the pic: also do check out his tags

The two most talked-about chapters of my barbershop book were those on gender and those on tag-singing. Having given a lot of attention to the former theme at Harmony University, I have some thoughts about the latter to share. In particular, how the activity of tag-singing, in its natural habitat, embodies many of the qualities that we were discussing in my classes on Techniques for Effective Rehearsing.

As anyone who has acquired this addiction knows, tag-singing is the secret pleasure of barbershop. It’s not very secret; we don’t purposely hide it away (though small groups of us may go and huddle in a stairwell to create our own private sonic space to enjoy it in). But you wouldn’t know about it by going to public-facing events – it’s what goes on after hours, when the formal activities have finished and people just want to hang out with each other.

Less is More with The Venus Effect

I didn't get a pic, so here's one of theirsI didn't get a pic, so here's one of theirsTuesday evening brought my friends The Venus Effect to me by Skype for a coaching session on the new arrangement of mine they’ll be bringing to the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers Convention in October. As I’ve observed before, this mode of coaching is somewhat different from the face-to-face experience, but still offers opportunities to get loads done.

The thing you might be worried about – sound quality – is to my mind less of an issue; after all, the 78prm record offered valid and artistic musical experiences. I notice more that the potential for inhabitance is impaired – the slight time delay means you can’t fully coordinate with the quartet, either gesturally or vocally. So the experience is more arms-length, giving instructions to be acted on, rather than being in the music with them. Still, since we couldn’t find a time in the diary we could all be in the same room together, Skype coaching is infinitely more useful than no coaching.

LABBS Directors Weekend 2018

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I sometimes wonder if the Ronseal approach* to naming the directors’ events we run for the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers underplays their sheer wonderfulness. But there’s something grounding in the balance. Just as an elevated conducting gesture really needs to be accompanied by a something that connects with the core/lower body to maintain the equilibrium of the voices, so the greater the extravaganza, the more it benefits from a matter-of-fact title.

For it was an extravaganza. We had practical work for all 50+ delegates, nurtured by our standing directors faculty; we had a rich and varied programme of electives led by 13 of our association’s most successful directors; we had the services of Cheshire Chord Company one day to explore a brand new arrangement being put together for the first time and a Volunteer Chorus the next, representing 60+ music team members and aspiring musical leaders who lent their voices in exchange for the learning experience.

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.

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.

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