December 2014

Facing Our Demons

demonI have been thinking quite a lot about this recently, mostly in the context of helping directors develop, but - as so often happens in this endeavour - the thoughts spread easily beyond the specialist field of choral music out into all kinds of corners of Real Life. Ensemble musicianship is, after all, about working with human beings.

And, in much the same way that people who train to become counsellors and therapists themselves have to undergo counselling and therapy, educators can’t go very long thinking about the people whose development they are supporting without stopping to consider their own progress. Hence the funny mix of naval-gazing and advice that sometimes emerges...

So, as directors (and in our various other roles in life), we all have areas where we are reasonably confident and secure. We also have areas that we are a bit scared of, that we fear we are not as strong in as we should be. We may try not to think about them too much, which means we remain a bit hazy about exactly what it is we feel inadequate about, but the awareness of it lurks at the back of our minds, ready to assail us in the dead of night whenever things go a bit wobbly.

Seasonal Harmonious Wishes

mulled_wineAs is my wont at this time of year, dear reader, I am going to neglect you for a week or so while I go off and do holiday-season things with Real Life People. I imagine you are doing exactly the same, so I hope you won’t feel too abandoned. Indeed, I hope you are feeling snug and loved-up (Northern hemisphere)/ carefree and summery (Southern hemisphere) with geographically-appropriate seasonal joys.

I wrote back in January about goal-setting, and found myself framing my aspirations for 2014 in terms of the qualities of experience I wished it to contain rather than a concrete to-do list. And I guess now is a good moment to check back in and see how that worked.

Channelling Wonder Woman

wonderwomanRecently a friend shared a rather wonderful TED talk with me, that resonated with all kinds of interests I have about performance and musical identity. It was given by a social psychologist called Amy Cuddy, and it dealt with research into the relationship between body language and how you feel about yourself, with particular reference to questions of power and social status.

If you know my second book, you’ll know why I find this so interesting. One of the things I was looking at there is the way that particular musical traditions share particular ways of using the body and the voice as integral to the style. Gesture, timbre, inflection - all those things that are too subtle to be caught in notation but are essential to competent performance - are encoded in the body. Getting the music needs a degree of willingness to empathise with it, to ‘mentally sing along’ as Schumann described the act of listening.

Four Non-Musical Contributions You Can Make That Can Transform Your Choir

We spend a lot of time and energy in choral groups thinking about how to improve the performance of the ensemble. And, not unreasonably, we focus much of this attention on musical and vocal skills. I would be the first to agree that learning how to sing better, and how to make better music are useful outlets for a choir’s energies.

But every so often, it is worth reflecting on habits and ways of being that a choir has developed, as individuals and as a collective, that are nothing to do with music or singing, but which can either facilitate or hinder the overall progress that choir makes.

Here are four things that every choir member can manage, whatever their current skills or levels of experience, that will actively help their choir improve.

The Role of the Director

The director as part of the chorus lineThe director as part of the chorus line

At the directors’ day I led down in Saltash in October, we started our first session with a discussion of the primary purpose of the choral director. There are lots of things on the director’s to-do list, but it is useful to home in on the central end to which they are all means: to help the choir sing the music.

I was thinking about this again after watching the chorus contest at the LABBS Convention in Harrogate, particularly in the context of the barbershop performance tradition that sees the director turn around and become part of the presentation. Does this contribute to or distract from this central purpose, and in what ways?

Maslow and Performance

MaslowWhen I was working through the implications of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for choirs back in the Spring, my focus was on the rehearsal environment, and in particular how the director can diagnose and thus meet singers’ needs within it. As it’s the time of year when choirs find themselves performing a lot, I found myself reflecting on the way that performance environments generate and satisfy the various types of need.

At the basic end of the scale, performance nerves are a symptom of safety needs - the combination of unfamiliar circumstances and personal vulnerability of putting yourself on the line in public can leave people feeling psychologically insecure. Many of the strategies I have discussed over the years for managing this form of environment are essentially about helping people feel safer. These include such things as preparation to anticipate the experience and thus diminish the fear of the unknown, building trust within the group so they keep each other safe, and managing adrenaline levels to attain a state of useful readiness rather than loss of control.

The Holonomic Voice: Part 2

In the confused ramble that was my last post, we explored the concept of the holonomic order, as discussed by Raymond Bradley. The reason I wanted to get to grips with this - apart from its interest in considering the social structure of choirs - is because it resonates with a remark made by a barbershop chorus director I was talking with back in the summer.

One of the questions this director was addressing was over-identification with voice-parts rather than the chorus as a whole. It was manifesting musically as too much contrast in vocal colour between the parts and consequently the harmonies were not always gelling. Socially, there was a degree of us-and-themness going on too.

It’s not just barbershop choruses who run into this problem of course, although some of that genre’s characteristic methods can encourage it. It is likely to emerge in any group, though, with some or all of the following features:

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