Capital Connection, Second Installment: Upgrading Christmas

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I was back in Ruislip on Wednesday for my second coaching visit in quick succession to Capital Connection. We were continuing with the skills agendas we had started last time, but - given the time of year - we did so via Christmas repertoire.

It is a commonplace in groups that maintain a performing repertoire that the skill level you had when you first learn a piece tends to get embedded in the performance of that piece. And it can be hard, therefore, to develop the performance as the skill level improves. Sometimes the reason why music gets dropped from repertoire is less about the song itself than about shedding the traces of past habits that it still contains.

Christmas repertoire gives a strange variant on this process. You start in on rehearsing it each autumn for a relatively intensive period, perform it quite a lot, and then put it to one side for the next 9 months or so. When you come back to it, it gives you a snap-shot of where you were the previous year.

Now, at this point, one of two things can happen. In some circumstances - if there is a lot of music to get through in a short time, for instance - the Christmas repertoire just becomes a scramble through in which you just about secure the notes and words in time to perform it, and every year you just get pulled back into your previous selves who first muddled through the songs and never really go and sort out the bits where the bodies are buried.

Or, you can use the sense of distance provided by the 9-month break to notice what you can do better than the previous year, and upgrade the seasonal music to the new standard. Guess which would be my preferred option?

Now the reason this matters is not just for the pleasure and delight of your seasonal audiences - not as if that isn't important of course. It's also about the nature of an ensemble's performance quality. One measure of how good a group is (or indeed an individual musician) is how well they do on a their best days. Another is how well they do on their worst days.

If you maintain a chunk of repertoire that never gets performed to the best of your ability, that acts as a permanent drag on your capacities. You have an annual season of practising being less than you could be. Conversely, the act of consciously upgrading the seasonal music to current skill levels offers the chance to develop a more self-aware sense of control over your technical and artistic abilities.

Hence, the usefulness of spending coaching time on music that only gets performed in one brief season comes from fostering the self-identity of performers as endemically competent and classy. The sounds that ring in your ears before you finish for the holidays provide the starting-point for the next year's work.

I noted in my last visit the musicianship of this chorus in the face of what is usually one of my more musically challenging exercises. I saw this quality again this time in a different context. We spent some time duetting a passage in order to focus on listening skills, and it was noticeable that the majority of comments were about elements of musical content rather than vocal execution. People remarked on how the parts behaved and interacted far more than on things like synchronisation and vowel matching.

What I found interesting, though, was that matters of vocal execution were still vastly improved after all this attention on musical structure. It was a wonderful demonstration of the way that the intuitive part of the brain will deliver vocally what is needed once it has grasped the musical gestalt - technical command dramatically improves in response to musical understanding.

Oh, and for all those people I go around telling that you get better at bubbling with a little practice, I can report that in only two weeks, I could see a significant improvement here. I am sure they would have practised diligently anyway had they not had the prospect of seeing me again so soon, but it was most pleasing to be able to witness the difference.

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