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Paying Compliments with Fascinating Rhythm

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FRmusteam

I spent Thursday evening with the Music Team of Fascinating Rhythm chorus in Gloucestershire, sharing a bespoke workshop based on my themed offerings of Musical Music Team and Effective Rehearsal Skills. Thursday is their regular chorus night, so this was a development opportunity not just for their MD, section leaders and assistant section leaders, but also for the team they had deputised to run the rehearsal in their absence.

As the evening progressed, how to pay a compliment emerged as a specific technique to hone. Role-playing section rehearsals to explore the Intervention/Enforcement cycles, it became clear that the team were already quite adept at identifying appropriate interventions, and they took quite readily to framing them briefly and positively. The apparently simpler task of starting off by saying something positive about what they’d just heard took more work.

In part this was to do with cognitive resources. A basic feedback protocol of ‘Say something you liked, say something to add/improve’ requires your brain to produce two things. If you’re accustomed to being focused on the second, it takes some practice to give attentional resources to the first as well.

But it is a good use of attention. Compliments not only keep the spirits up, reassuring your singers that their efforts are effective and appreciated, but also help them own their skills. Catch someone doing something well, and they’ll take that into their identity and keep doing it.

We used a rubric for compliments I first learned from Rhiannon Owens-Hall about 20 years ago: the SIPS compliment. An effective compliment needs to be:

  • Specific: be precise about what was good.
  • Immediate: give the compliment while the memory of the good thing is fresh.
  • Personal: a compliment directed to an individual or section is taken to heart more than a generalised one. It works both as Bright Spot coaching, and raises everyone else’s game.
  • Sincere: it needs to be true to be believed. Hollow compliments undermine rather than build trust, and set lower standards.

(When I first learned this rubric, I came bouncing out of a session at a BABS Harmony College and told Jonathan about it. After I had talked about it for a while, he said, ‘So let me get this right, compliments need to be Personal, Immediate, Sincere, and Specific, is that right?’)

One of the hurdles we encountered was making compliments specific enough. ‘Very nice’ may be true, but doesn’t add anything other than a desire to please. ‘Nice blend’ is more usefully musical, but once you’ve said that once, you’re going to need to move onto something more meaningful.

A strategy to deal with this is to have a personal checklist of things you might hear done well, and in particular, areas of your craft that you have been working on in recent memory. If you go in with an intention to listen out for good work in specific areas, then it will be easier to spot it when it happens. Nothing wrong with spontaneous compliments invented in response to the moment, but most of our work happens in the context of a general trajectory of development, so using that to generate rehearsal focus is both normal and helpful.

Another effective approach was to describe what was heard. ‘Nice sound’ is imprecise. ‘Rich sound’, ‘round sound’, ‘gentle sound, appropriate to the song’ were all much more effective compliments. Also, listening for moments helps provide specificity: a compliment to the crispness of the ‘ch’ in ‘chilly’ upgraded the articulation of text in the rest of the passage a second time through. Strangely, the smaller the detail the compliment celebrates, the greater the impact it has on the whole.

A second hurdle we overcame was a tendency to put a ‘but’ between compliment and intervention, either explicitly, or just implied in the tone of voice in which the compliment was paid. ‘Well-matched vowels, but it needs more soul’ makes it sound like the technical skill of vowel-matching isn’t very valuable, and undercuts the usefulness of the compliment to build confident ownership of skills.

We found our way round this by scripting the transition as ‘Now…’ rather than ‘…but…’. ‘Splendid vowel matching. Now let’s add more soul,’ celebrates the technical skill and uses it as a spring-board to the next stage.

There’s a specific skill I spotted in much of our practical work, and which I want to celebrate here to encourage others. This was the way that these musical leaders, after giving an intervention, led the music in a way that gave constant feedback on how well everyone was achieving the goal. In the bodily demeanour and eye contact there were effectively myriad micro-cycles of enforcement and recognition: remember to do this - ooh, yes well done - remember to do this - ooh, yes well done - remember to do this - ooh, yes well done, all happening within the musical flow.

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