September 2010

Team Coaching with Amersham A Cappella

Warming up on Saturday morningWarming up on Saturday morning
I spent the weekend with my friends in Amersham A Cappella at their annual retreat. I was one of three coaches for the weekend, along with Nancy Kelsall and Sandra Lea-Riley of Eu4ia fame, and I found the team approach an interesting change from my regular coaching experience.

It’s been some years since I did much team coaching, and I found this weekend went significantly more smoothly than that previous experience. I’m sure being more experienced helped, as did a more equal relationship within the team (rather than being the junior partner – which is one of those problems that self-corrects over time of course). But most important was working from established relationships - Nancy and Sandra are already well accustomed to working together, and we’ve known each other a good long while too. I first worked with Eu4ia back in 2005, and we’ve spent enough time discussing ideas about music and performance together in the intervening years to have a pretty good idea of each other’s philosophies.

Why a Bad Rehearsal Isn’t Always Bad News

Do you ever have one of those evening where nothing seems to go right? Things that everyone sang with ease the week before sound like they’re sight-reading it upside down; when you gesture to start them singing, they just look at you as if you’ve done something strange and inexplicable; the vocal support sags and the tonal centre strays south.

We can sometimes identify the cause of difficult rehearsals.

Musical Meaning and Semantic Depletion

Say the word ‘moon’ out loud twenty times. After a while it stops sounding like a meaningful word with connotations of romantic June nights and/or astronauts and just starts to sound like, well, a sound. A rather silly sound, indeed.

This is a process that linguists call semantic depletion. Say something often enough and the connection between signifier (the sound that points to an idea) and signified (the idea a sound evokes) breaks down. This isn’t usually a problem in conversation, so for linguists I imagine it’s an interesting phenomenon that gives them good clues about how the mind processes language, but doesn’t present any particularly urgent practical issues.

People who rehearse their meaningful utterances have more of a problem though.

Whistle While You Work

Cupboard conceptualised to musicCupboard conceptualised to musicThe literature of musical aesthetics is littered with discussions about what music might actually be for (if anything). On one hand people can get quite huffy at the suggestion that something that we care about so much might have a merely utilitarian function, while on the other they can be equally affronted by the idea that it is simply ‘auditory cheescake’.*

I don’t have a clear theory about what the purpose of music might be in an originary sense – i.e. I couldn’t tell you why it came to be part of our life as a social species. But I do have an observation about the role it plays in ordinary life.

Driving the Key Change

Earlier this week I received an email that asked:

How do you identify which part drives the key change?

I thought I’d reply publicly, since my correspondent might not be the only person who has ever wanted to know about this. And it’s one of those questions that at one level has a simple general answer, and at another opens more complex questions.

Coaching Coast to Coast

Coast to Coast in warm-up modeCoast to Coast in warm-up modeCoast to Coast, the national chorus of LABBS, invited me to coach them on Sunday as part of their retreat weekend. The chorus comprises singers from across the country, and meets once a month, usually on a Sunday. Many of its members sing with small choruses, and find that Coast to Coast offers them not only the chance to sing in a larger group, but provides a wider networking opportunity to exchange ideas and advice to take back to their home clubs.

The chorus had spent the Saturday on big-picture questions such as planning the group’s development and exploring their understanding of the music. Their new director, Linda Blackett, has identified as a medium-term goal to work on musicianship, and having the extra day together gave them the chance to do activities that focused on the skills of the singers and not just preparing for their next performance – a nice bit of work on production capacity, not just production.

Green Street Blues and the Integrated Song

GSB7sep10
On Tuesday I spent an evening with Green Street Blues to help kick off their pre-convention preparation season, and the focus of our work was on the new contest uptune that they commissioned from me earlier in the year. During my last visit back in April we had established the overall expressive approach to it, and our task now was move into the detail.

Bristol Fashion and the Quest for Freshness

bristolsep10On Sunday I made another coaching visit to my friends in Bristol Fashion chorus as they start their pre-convention season of contest preparation. They had had the foresight to record their contest package on their rehearsal night last week and send them to me in advance, and it was great to be able to spend some time on the way down formulating ideas for our day’s work from a really up-to-date snapshot of their work.

One of the issues the chorus is grappling with how to get the benefit of deep familiarity with a song whilst keeping their relationship with it fresh. This is a dilemma that all ensembles face in some way or another. You need new repertoire to expand your artistic horizons and stretch you emotionally and technically; but you also need to be able to get beyond the practical issues of getting the notes and words right to be able to develop depth and insight. So the question is how to manage this balance without familiarity collapsing into autopilot.

Development Opportunities for Arrangers

Celebrating the back-to-school season with two opportunities for barbershop arrangers:

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