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Adventures in Aberdeenshire

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Traditional warm-up pic: with added antlersTraditional warm-up pic: with added antlers

I spent the weekend up in snowy Aberdeenshire with the Granite City Chorus at their annual retreat. They have an effective structure for the event, which they hold at a hotel about 45 minutes out of the city where they’re based – close enough for convenience, but far enough to feel bracketed off from regular life. We had a full day for coaching on the Saturday, followed by a convivial evening, with a nice balance of planned activity (meal, quiz, singing) and unstructured social time. Sunday’s work finished with lunch, meaning everyone could find their way back to real life before they got too wiped out.

The thing that makes this structure so effective is the chance to work on things, then revisit them after a night’s sleep. It is during sleep that new skills and knowledge get transferred from short-term memory into longer-term storage, so on the second day you discover which bits made that journey safely, and which bits fell out en route. There’ll always be some of each, but you can’t tell in advance which will be which. It also gives you the opportunity at the end of the first day to discuss together what people would like to spend time on in the morning. As a coach, this means you go in better prepared, and as a singer you go in primed for what’s coming next.

In counterpoint to this sense of continuity, the work on the second day feels qualitatively different after the evening together. On one hand the cognitive capacities are less fresh of a Sunday morning. It wasn’t a hugely late night on the Saturday, but it followed a full and intensive day, so people were still somewhat tired first thing. The response times were a little slower, and we reached that point in any exercise where people need to sigh to relieve their brains rather sooner. (I love the sound of that sigh; it is the audible side-effect of learning.) On the other hand, the levels of trust are much higher, both within the chorus, and between chorus and coach, so you can be more playful and experimental in what you do together.

One issue that both their director Peter and various chorus members had identified as an needing attention was that of dynamics. Interestingly, this is something that, left to my own devices, I tend to assume will look after itself, once everything else is in place and people connect to the music and let their instinct for story-telling show through. But as we got various other things that needed TLC untangled during this first session on the Sunday, I began to see what they meant.

But I also began to intuit in what sounded like a propensity to thunder through passages that needed a gentler touch wasn’t a symptom of artistic insensitivity, but rather one of over-exertion born of doubt. Having lived through experiences of the song in which things had gone wrong, either in timings or in the harmonic interrelationships between parts, people were holding very firmly to their parts, making very sure they projected notes, words and rhythms with maximum clarity.

And you could hear that people now definitely had their parts. But they were projecting them with such focus that they didn’t have room to let each other’s music into their consciousness. Stripping the texture down so they had space to hear what the other parts were doing was part of the solution to this. So was slowing things down in full texture to give time for chords to coalesce into composite sounds, not just juxtapositions of simultaneous sounds.

These stepping stones led us to a place from which we could take the leap of trust to meet and disarm the underlying emotional tension that motivated the over-exertion. We spread everyone out around the room, and had them sing the tag of the ballad we had been working on with their eyes closed. First time through, you could hear very clearly how people were driving the music forward as if they didn’t quite believe it would happen. Once that first iteration had gone much better than they had expected, we could encourage people to relax into it a bit more.

This produced a smoother, more integrated sound, but that sense of responsibility, of having to hold tight to make sure nothing fell out, was still audible. Third time, the invitation was not just to relax into the sound, but for the singers to lose themselves in it, to let go of their own individual voices and connect to the sound around them. And then the magic happened. The sound was not only well-coordinated and balanced, it was free, resonant, and, above all, expressive.

The major insight from this experience was that what appeared on the surface to be a musical/artistic question was actually a matter of the singers’ relationships with themselves and the ensemble. There was absolutely no doubt that everybody really cared about the music, and was committed to making it work. In fact, they were trying so hard they were getting in each other’s way. What could be described at face value as people singing too loudly was actually the sound of people anxious not to let each other down.

The conversation we had in our wrap-up session thus focused on trust: trusting the process, trusting the music, trusting themselves. Adult learners can be so hard on themselves, as they know the difference between when it sounds good and when it doesn’t, and they find it hard to live through the inevitable phase of any musical endeavour when it sounds a bit naff. The thing is, worrying at it doesn’t make it sound better; purposeful and mindful practice and rehearsal is what makes it sound better. Worrying at it just slows up the refinement process.

Making mistakes is part of the process. Embracing this, and knowing that everyone there is on the case, and indeed has each other’s backs, frees you up to become the musician you deserve to be.

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