Nearly three years ago I visited Hallmark of Harmony in Sheffield to spend an evening observing their rehearsal prior to producing a report to feed into their five-year plan for the chorus’s development. In the intervening time they have gone from success to success, having won a succession of contest medals, the most recent one of which has qualified them to go and compete at the Barbershop Harmony Society’s International Convention this summer.
This week I went back for a return visit, which they framed this time as giving them a healthcheck. This seems a most apt metaphor - they have clearly found their mojo as a chorus and didn’t need help fixing problems that were conspicuously holding them back. But just as if you wait until you are suffering to seek medical advice, you miss the opportunity to nip ailments in the bud, reviewing how you are getting on as a chorus while things are going well can help you head off issues that could become problems in the future. You can also identify ways to turn good health into even better health - indeed a chorus has rather more scope to do this than the medical profession!
So, my remit was to observe the Music Team in action. I saw three of them out in front of the whole chorus, and others leading section rehearsals. Whilst not every team member was there that evening, I got a good feeling for their shared working methods and development needs.
Indeed, one of the things I found striking was the extent to which my observations about both strengths and opportunities for development generalised across the team. That is, they really are working as a team, picking up each other’s concepts and vocabulary as a shared resource, including those that emerge creatively within the flow of the rehearsal. They likewise have a shared gestural vocabulary as directors, suggesting that they are thinking about the music in ways that are deeply compatible with each other.
This inevitably means that the elements of technique they could usefully work on are also shared. But I am optimistic that this means they’ll be able to support each other in addressing those issues.
Part of the reason for my optimism is another thing that I found striking: that their rehearsal this week was significantly better in several areas that I had identified for them to address three years ago. Really, it is most cheering when people not only ask for advice, but actually take it and use it to good effect.
In particular, all members of the team ran their rehearsals ran their parts of the rehearsal with more efficiency and directness than they had in the past. Some of the personnel were the same as three years ago, some different, but it was clear there has been a significant culture shift across the board. There was more focus, a better balance of singing and non-singing time, and much closer moment-to-moment monitoring from the leaders of what the singers were producing.
This all resulted in a rehearsal that had more pace, energy and purpose, and a very buoyant emotional tone. The physical energy and mental agility of the singers was also much higher. I know they have done a lot of work on the singers’ technique as well in the intervening time, but it does show how much the manner of running a rehearsal can help or hinder the musical and vocal results, almost independently of the content.
I’m not going to tell you what I identified as areas for them to work on next, but I will say that I think they have thought to consider that question at a good time. The team are assured in their current skills, but if they want the chorus to keep developing, they need to stretch themselves to their next stage before their current capacities run out of scope to produce improvement.
The one bit of coaching I did with them was on the introduction to my arrangement of ‘I Won’t Dance’ with which they won their BABS gold last summer. And then, when they continued into the main body of the song, their MD Andy Allen handed the direction over to me. Which was lovely, but also a little alarming, as it’s quite a long time since I’ve been down dirty in the detail of that chart and I usually prefer to know what’s going on when directing. (Call me old-fashioned.)
Still, to all those people I have worked with on conducting recently and told that the ideal is to do as little with your hands as possible, indeed that you can go a long way by just smiling encouragingly at the ensemble: Tuesday’s experience was living proof that this still works. But also - that advice I give about really knowing the music well before trying to direct it? Turns out you should believe that too.