The Clancys in Action

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Jim Clancy: Not the best pic I've ever taken, but you can see some of the delight he is bringing to the singers on their facesJim Clancy: Not the best pic I've ever taken, but you can see some of the delight he is bringing to the singers on their facesIt was a no-brainer, at the recent BABS Convention, to go along to see Jim and Greg Clancy do a coaching workshop. You want to see how the current and founder directors of the world’s most successful barbershop chorus go about things; and if you’re me you also want to take notes and blog about it afterwards.

And it wasn’t a surprise to see Hallmark of Harmony take to the risers - since they will be representing BABS at the International Convention in Pittsburgh in just a few weeks, they were the obvious candidate for coaching. Then, when the singers took up position for the choreography, the penny finally dropped that I was about to see them coached on the song I had arranged for them. That was an exciting moment, though I did feel a bit dim for not having foreseen it.

Anyway, most of what they worked on would have been the same whatever the chorus was singing, so the rest of this blog post will stop being about me and go back to my original plan of writing about coaching methods. But the bit where Greg did focus in on the detail of the chart was wonderful - homing right in on the features that were there to make it exciting and bringing them into full musical technicolour.

One of the concepts that a lot of the audience at the workshop were talking about afterwards was a variant on the unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence continuum. It was presented as three categories of knowledge/skill:

  • Category 1: Things you know how to do and that you already do all the time [equivalent to unconscious competence]
  • Category 2: Things you know how to do and that you currently do some of the time [equivalent to conscious competence]
  • Category 3: Things you don’t do because you don’t even know they exist yet [equivalent to unconscious incompetence]

Their point was that rehearsal focus should be on converting Category 2 skills into Category 1 skills rather than constantly haring off to seek new Category 3 skills. I don’t know that I’d be quite so hardline about that - I hear often enough performances that would be improved if the performers were not clueless about some aspect of what they’re doing - but I take the point too. There are very few performances that would not be vastly improved by the discipline to apply already-acquired skills consistently.

And it was clear from the approach to the coaching session that the simple refusal to accept something less than they had already demonstrated they could do was key to their success. They never let up in pushing people up that greasy pole.

Whilst a lot of the work in the session was on a collection of what you might call ‘basics’ (is it basic when it is the key to excellence? answers on a postcard please), I was struck by how each element was intimately connected with the next. Pitch integrity was associated with placement through a common metaphor of ‘keeping on top of it’. Placement was subsequently linked to line and continuity of sound, which was in turn linked with narrative and continuity of communication. Choreography was then linked to the singing through core exercises in ways that resonated with the Marron-Poszgay methods I wrote about a few years ago.

What emerged was a highly integrated approach in which the separate elements supported each other rather than being compartmentalised. This made the goal of turning Category 2s into Category 1s much more feasible, since the reason conscious competencies fail to become automatic is often because there isn’t enough cognitive bandwidth to keep them in mind continuously enough to develop fluency.

The other main thing that I wanted to comment on (as opposed, you know, to the myriad bons mots that popped out in passing and that I’ll no doubt be quoting piecemeal over the coming months) was how unremittingly visual Jim Clancy in particular was in his approach.

This theme emerged when he took some singers to task for gesturing too high. He acknowledged that the current performance practice is to allow individual singers a greater freedom of expression with their hands (though in a tone that implied, ‘if you must’), but instructed them to keep the movements below the level of the waist so as to avoid undue visual distraction.

I found this interesting not least because one of the notes I had made during the chorus contest the previous day was that this freedom of gesture gives you as much information about the singers’ variable levels of musical understanding as about the meaning of the songs themselves.

But Jim’s point was framed more in terms of professional standards. By presenting a clean visual impression, a chorus signals to the audience that they are serious about what they do. And that in turn affects how people listen. If you look clean, he said, people will think you sing cleanly, whereas visual distractions will make people feel that the aural dimension is also imperfect. What was possibly the most surprising was the primacy he gave to this in the chorus’s operations: ‘Nothing is more important than how you look,’ he said, and, ‘The visual never stops’.

Now, whilst Jim framed this in terms of audience psychology, I suspect there was quite a lot subtle singer psychology going on too. Given the highly integrated approach to technique, it would seem likely that a performer who is focused on projecting a clean and professional appearance is likely to be in the frame of mind also to take a consistent and focused approach to singing. Physical control helps prevent them pulling their vocal set-up out of shape, and continuity of expression likewise keeps them vocally poised from phrase to phrase.

And when you are dealing with a chorus the size of the Vocal Majority, with 150 or so singers, visual discipline is going to be an essential proxy for vocal and musical discipline for the director and coaches to monitor. When you have only 20 singers, identifying the source of distractions in the sound by ear is pretty straightforward. Multiply the numbers up and however good your directional hearing is, homing in on exactly who in a particular area is the source of the problem will be a lot lot harder. You are going to be using visual cues a lot more to help zoom your ears in on where they need to be, even if you have - as these gentlemen clearly do - some of the best ears in the business.

The other random thought that comes to mind as I write that is about the relationship between chorus size and chorus quality. We all know that it is a fallacy to think you’ll make a mediocre chorus into a good one by doubling the numbers; what in fact happens is that as you increase the quality of the music, more people want to participate in the success. But it occurs to me that it is just as well that this is the case. If you have 150 singers in your care, the sound had better be pretty unified or you’ll never be able to control it. Can you imagine the mayhem you’d have if you had that many singers all producing the kind of fuzz and clutter you hear in a group scoring at the C level? The music would be completely drowned out.

I was also in the audience - what a treat! Even better, I had the privilege of singing with VM as a member of the Cottontown chorus! You just can't beat "quality singing", as someone said - and boy was I exposed to that! One baritone (lucky for me!) from VM stood behind me singing May you always. I was struck by the feeling of power in the guy's voice - not loud but full of energy, vibrancy, depth; sheer quality from start to finish! Singing of the highest quality - just cant beat it!

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