Excellence

On the Fear of Improvement

I have often quipped over the years that many people find increasing their skill levels to be an experience like the old song, ‘Everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die’ – as in, everyone wants to get better, but nobody wants to change. But I have been reflecting recently on a phenomenon that lies behind this inertia: some people seem actively to fear getting better.

Phrase it like that, and it sounds bonkers. Why would anyone shy away from being more competent and assured at doing the thing they love? But it is an observable phenomenon, and one which I need to understand if I am to succeed in my life’s aim of helping people make music with more confidence, skill and joy.

You have to look quite carefully to make the observation, of course. People don’t come straight out and say that they’re not going to use a technique that will improve their breath control or range or expressive power because they’re scared of it. Rather, it emerges in various forms of blocking behaviour: self-sabotage, distraction, attacking the legitimacy of the technique or the person who’s teaching it, picking a fight over something completely unrelated.

Make Our Garden Grow

Some years ago, I participated in Birmingham Opera Company’s production of Candide, and one of the abidingly inspirational memories it left is of the final chorus, ‘Make Our Garden Grow’. You get the sense of the musical lushness from this extract, but you need the full context of the opera’s moral journey to get the full effect.

At the time, I was a novice and intermittent gardener. In fact, I seem to recall that quite a lot of our overwintering plants perished through lack of water in an unusually dry January and February while we were busy rehearsing for the show. But as I have grown in experience and confidence in my relationship with plants, the ethical resonances of that piece has stayed at the back of my mind.

It came to the front of my mind recently, what with some good weather to get out amongst the plants, and gardening being a good activity when you have some thinking to do. It struck me that as an activity, it is an excellent metaphor for Choice Theory. You can’t force a plant to grow, all you can do is endeavour to create an environment in which it will flourish. And since my primary reason for thinking about Choice Theory was its implications for directing a choir, I got to mulling on gardening as a metaphor for this too.

Emotionally Resilient Choirs: An Addendum

My post a couple of weeks back on On Building an Emotionally Resilient Choir received a response on Facebook that I thought may be of interest to other readers, so I’m following it up here. It’s one of those wonderful questions that choral directing is so full of – simultaneously philosophical and intensely practical:

Interested in finding the balance between "don't be grumpy" and saying "we can work on this" whilst also maintaining an expectation that certain things will be done at home by individuals as preparation for or follow-up to rehearsals.

See what I mean? At the heart of it is the worry that by choosing to be kind to our singers we will have therefore to sacrifice our standards. What if we don’t want to choose between these?

The Choral Director’s Golden Triangle

Director's Triangle

There’s a useful concept in project management of the Golden Triangle. It is formed by three aspects of any project: Scope (how much it covers), Time (how long it will take to complete), and Resource (both human and physical – what you need to complete it, and therefore how much it will cost).

The point of the triangle is that your plan will quantify all three, but in practice you will probably only be able to control two of them. So, when real life inevitably starts to depart from what you’d planned (inevitably because projects are by definition things you don’t do regularly so inherently subject to unforeseen circumstances), one or other of these three is going to slip.

Raising the Game with Amersham A Cappella

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One of the many things I love about my life is the opportunity to both arrange for and coach skilled and up-for-it ensembles. I mentioned my recent arrangement for Amersham A Cappella that they performed at BABS Convention recently when I was reflecting on the quality of lit-up-ness. When I went down to see them on Tuesday to work with them on another new chart, this one destined for the European Convention in October, that excitement was evident again.

(I am sure I have mentioned before how excited I am about the range of new arrangements LABBS choruses will be showcasing to our European visitors this autumn. As well as the four of mine due for premiere, I know of one by Debi Cox and two by Heather Lane due to be unveiled – though all I know about the last two is that they exist. It’s going to be a long contest, but it’s not going to be dull!)

Re-Framing the Tricky Bits

Two vignettes from my undergraduate education:

In a piano lesson, playing through a piece I was working on, and stumbling slightly. ‘Yes, that bit is difficult,’ said my teacher, clearly wishing to reassure me that it was understandable that I wasn’t yet playing it as well as the rest. But I had a sudden, sinking feeling that now he’d said that, I was never going to be able to play it.

In a visiting lecture from organist Gillian Weir, reporting on her studies with Olivier Messaien. ‘There’s no such thing as difficult music,’ he had told her. ‘There’s only music you can’t play yet. Remember the music you were working on two years ago? You can play it now, but you used to think it too hard. But the music hasn’t changed.’

Looking back, I suspect it was the first experience that made me so ready to embrace the message of the second. And I have spent my life as an educator trying to avoid labelling things as difficult. Whenever somebody says anything to me that starts with the words ‘I can’t…’ I have a compulsion to add ‘yet’ to the end of their sentence.

On All-Woman Shortlists

Well, all-woman anythings really. Shortlists are the famous example from the process of MP candidate-selection that really delivered, briefly, a more representative set of parliamentarians to the UK. But the reason I've been thinking about this again recently was my conversation with that outraged man who couldn't enter competitions for female composers.

I'm going to begin with a critique of his objections to this method of encouraging female talent, which were entirely typical of the genre and thus worth discussing in general terms that go beyond this particular instance. This will be the grumpy feminist bit. If you prefer, you can skip ahead to the more cheerful part later on where I discuss the very positive experiences this approach offers, which aren't necessarily apparent until you've participated in them.

Miscellaneous Observations from BinG! Harmony College

Cy Wood in actionCy Wood in actionAs I reported earlier in the month, I had a stupendously enriching time with the good people of Barbershop in Germany at their Harmony College. Having done all the big-picture reflections when I first came home, I find my notebook has a pile of interesting observations, none of which is big enough to blog about in themselves, but all of which are too useful not to share.

So here is a pleasant miscellany of observations of things I found stimulating. Mostly, I see now I write them up, because they were specific instances of general principles I have been writing about over the last couple of years. Always good to see something you theorise about played out in real life.

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