Spring Fest 2017

4 of the 5 tutors for the day4 of the 5 tutors for the day

Last Sunday saw my third consecutive year as a tutor for the A Cappella Spring Fest at the Cornerstone Arts Centre in Didcot. The day took a similar shape to the previous years, with a plenary warm-up followed by themed classes and workshops in the morning, then afternoon rehearsals in a variety of a cappella genres, culminating in performances where we all shared our efforts.

I was leading the Contemporary A Cappella stream again this year, but with the added amenity of vocal percussion. Andy Frost from the Magnets ran two general workshops on beatboxing in the morning, and then during the afternoon coached a small group to add a vocal percussion part to Ben Bram’s arrangement of ‘Uptown Funk’.

It is a moderately challenging arrangement – though we had cut it down somewhat, given the short rehearsal time available – but participants took it well in their stride. It helps that the intricate parts that need rather more attention to get right come back at several points in the arrangement, so you feel it is worth investing the time in them, as you’ll get plenty of use out of that work. The passages aren’t expensive on a cost-per-sing basis, so to speak.

Performance with a Blank Mind

I had an email at the start of the year from a reader discussing an aspect of the experience of performing that struck me as one that many other performers would empathise with. As well as being something I wanted to reflect on as well. It came in response to my post of November 29 about Rehearsing Performance.

When rehearsing, we are often asked at the end of a run-through of a song whether we remembered to implement one or two techniques on which there is a current focus. If I have remembered I'll say yes, if I haven't consciously thought about them I'll count myself as having forgotten.

On stage, particularly in competition, all techniques are ideally implemented at once and there is no space in my brain to do this consciously. I know the answer is that by now they should be embedded and automatic, but instead, despite not feeling unduly nervous, I always come off stage concluding that my mind went entirely blank and I therefore probably did nothing I was supposed to. I feel very down on myself and don't enjoy the occasion at all. I'm not quite sure what the answer is.

Rehearsing Performance

I had an email recently from a regular reader whom I’ve had the good fortune to become friends with in person through some of my European trips over the last 15 months. She is about to take up her first chorus director position in the new year, and had an excellent question, which she correctly diagnosed as the kind of thing it would be useful to share here.

I’ll quote her at length, because she has done a good deal of the analytical groundwork for us, so I can get straight onto the pragmatics:

One of the central takeaway messages for me from both the German and the Dutch harmony college this year was that performance is fundamentally different from rehearsal. During rehearsal you may focus on technical stuff whereas during performance you have to accept the technical level of singing that you're at and essentially forget about the technical stuff. Performance was characterized by having fun, staying in the moment, trying to connect with the audience and so on.

Miscellanous Thoughts from Holland Harmony College

This is another of those posts where I ruminate on the observations that collect in my notebook over a stimulating weekend, this time from my adventures with Holland Harmony. Many of these, I discover now I try to organise them, are about making connections between things I had already been aware of in ways which illuminate both.

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.

Choice Theory for Choral Directors 3: The Rehearsal as Solving Circle

GlasserThe Solving Circle is a technique that William Glasser developed in his work as a relationship counsellor. It is designed to get people out of that impasse where they are both complaining about each other’s behaviours and throwing blame about for the ill-feeling generated by their attempts to control each other. I am interested to see if it offers a useful model through which to conceptualise the choral rehearsal.

The principle of the Solving Circle is to create a space for the safe negotiation of differences. In Glasser’s formulation of marital therapy, there are three entities within the circle: the two spouses and the marriage itself. The ground rule for stepping into the circle is that, whilst you may each have strongly-held positions based on your individual needs, by stepping into the circle you agree that the marriage takes precedence over those individual needs.

Choice Theory for Choral Directors

GlasserI recently read William Glasser’s book Choice Theory at the suggestion of a friend, and it has been a thought-provoking exercise. There is a good deal in the book that is open to critique - to the extent that if I didn’t trust the judgement of the person who recommended it, I may not have bothered to finish it - but there is also a good deal of humane and sensible advice in it.

So, I’m glad I did persist with it, and I’m prepared likewise to cautiously recommend it in turn, with the caveat that you need to be able to cope with an argument that quite often overstates its case and makes unsubstantiated (indeed, unsubstantiatable) assertions. If you’re not sure you want to cope with that kind of thing, here’s a summary of what I learned from it...

(Rehearsal) Planning for the Unknown

During the abcd Initial Conducting Course I led earlier this year, I had several conversations with conductors about how to manage rehearsal planning in the particular circumstance that you don’t yet know the much about the choir you’re planning for. How do you work out what will be appropriate repertoire when you don’t yet know the skills and experience of the singers you will be working with?

This is a circumstance that can affect anyone who is lined up with a conducting job they’ve not yet started, but it is felt most strongly in early career musicians who don’t yet have a fund of previous similar experiences to draw on.

So, the first thing is to do what profiling you can. For those moving to new teaching jobs, the age of the children you will be working with gives you quite a lot of information about what to expect, and you can also glean a good deal from what kind of repertoire your predecessor was using with them. If they have any recordings of recent performances, this will also tell you a lot.

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