Holland Harmony Education Weekend: Further Reflections

A drawing of what Adam was doingA drawing of what Adam was doingA few weeks on, and I’ve had time to untangle some of the notes in my thinking book about the Holland Harmony education weekend back in September. As I discussed in my main report on the event, both the teaching process and the interactions with other coaches offered manifold opportunities to grow. So here are some of the things I learned that are going to be useful in my ongoing quest to help people make good music.

Just Voices

JustVoices

Saturday brought me a day-trip to Bromley to work with Just Voices, a women’s a cappella group. There were a few familiar faces of people I’d met in other choruses – not least their director Cathy Davies who I’ve most recently seen in Strictly A Cappella and Frisson - but mostly these were new friends waiting to happen. So I was particularly pleased to receive the feedback that I ‘wasn’t as scary as some people’. If I need a new strapline, that one’s certainly on the shortlist.

The afternoon fell into two major themed areas. We started out with a music-focus, delving into the detail of the songs, and engaging with different elements in response to the needs of the moment.

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.

Thoughts on Phnerting

swipeYou know when you wake up before your alarm, and it’s not really worth going back to sleep again but neither can you be bothered to get up just yet? That’s when thoughts turn to the curious expressive power of the phnert.

Regular readers may remember that phnert is the term coined by Lori Lyford to mean the sonority of a major 2nd and the particular effect it has on harmonic direction. It is useful to know as a singer, as it tells you how to relate to the other note in the phnert: you need to lean into it, and collaborate to make sure it’s balanced. It’s like squirting a lemon pip out between thumb and forefinger: both digits need to be equally and actively involved if you are to get any real propulsion.

My morning musings covered the following miscellaneous areas:

Playlist 2017: 8th Commentary

The next instalment of thoughts on my listening project for 2017. 87 items in, and I’ve not yet repeated a composer. Well, by this stage I’m not going to, am I? The full list and links to previous commentaries can be found here. Happy listening!

  • Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Concerto Romantico for viola and chamber orchestra (1956). Another interesting exercise in confronting my own prejudices: I have a hunch I came across some pieces for children by Peggy Glanville-Hicks in a pile of music being discarded from Southampton University Music Department from which students were invited to help themselves. I thus had her implicitly stereotyped as (a) a writer of simple things and (b) not worth keeping. Would I have assumed that music for children by a man represented the sum of his ambition? Not that I articulated this thought consciously, you realise, I just notice it when coming across major works and thinking, ‘Oh I didn’t know she wrote this stuff!’
  • Claudia Rusca, 'Jubilate Deo Omnis Terra' from I Sacri Concerti (1630). Ensemble Frottola have recorded quite a few of Rusca’s Sacri Concerti, so it’s worth a listen around.

West Country Double

Remembered to take a pic on the second leg of the trip...Remembered to take a pic on the second leg of the trip...

I’ve been down West a fair bit this month already, and on reading the blog posts after those trips, Samphire quartet got in touch to ask if perchance I was down that way again at all in the run up to the LABBS/European barbershop convention. As it happens, I had one more trip planned, this time to Riviera Sound, and so we extended the trip to get extra use from the train fare, and I took a diversion to Bodmin for the Friday afternoon before heading back to Torquay.

With less than a month to go before contest, the agenda for Samphire was all about moving on from technique and into artistry. By this stage in the preparation cycle, the last thing you need is for singers to be concentrating on managing their voices, or making changes to notes or words. Fortunately, Samphire had clearly been putting in the graft to get the technical dimensions of their performance under control, so it was safe to tell them to trust that work and focus on the meaning of the songs.

Coaching on Cloud9

Cloud9The final adventure of my trip to the Netherlands was to go and work with Cloud9 quartet. They had already had a good deal of coaching over the education weekend (rather more than they had anticipated when we set up our session), so we went into the main song they wanted to work on having had it already significantly deconstructed over the previous two days.

We agreed up front that we would therefore work with the understanding that if there was anything that so in flux to be confusing, we had the choice of using me to facilitate decisions or just parking that question for them to think about when they’d had a bit more time to process their recent experiences.

Peer Learning with Holland Harmony

The weekend's final masterclass, with the New Harvest SingersThe weekend's final masterclass, with the New Harvest Singers

My trip to the Netherlands was precipitated by an invitation to serve on the faculty for an education weekend for Holland Harmony's quartets and musical leaders. It was thus a smaller event, in terms of numbers, than last year’s Harmony College, but it was commensurately more focused. Once again we had an all-star international faculty, delivering a programme of workshops that made all of us wish we had time to go and hear each other’s offerings.

As usual after this kind of intensive weekend, I have a notebook-full of thoughts and reflections stimulated by the experience, some of which will work their way into blog posts over the coming weeks and months as I process them. In the first instance, though, it’s the nature of learning experience itself, rather than the musical content of that learning, that holds my attention.

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