Surrey Harmony and the Musical Music Team
Thursday night saw me doing another session for a chorus’s music team, this time with Surrey Harmony. It was a rather different dynamic from my last session - a similar number of people, but this time the entire team from a single chorus rather than a couple from each of several choruses. What we lost in the opportunity to compare experience between different ensembles we gained in the opportunity to develop mutual understanding and shared working methods within the group.
(As an aside: there is a truism lurking in there about the learning process. What you can learn in any given scenario is to some extent a function of your own needs, beliefs and habits, but it is also a function of who you are learning with.)
We started off with some groundwork on team roles, auditing everyone’s level of involvement with/responsibility for a detailed list of functions music teams typically serve. From this snapshot of where they currently are, we identified a couple of areas where the director is currently carrying the bulk of the responsibility, and not only would she like a greater team involvement, the rest of the team were expressing a wish to get involved more. So we had a good deal to strike there.
A couple of other tweaks/clarifications emerged from the discussion, as well as the discovery that large chunks of the team’s remit are well under control and operating according to a shared understanding. Both of these results were useful for team morale.
We then moved onto some similar areas of rehearsal technique to those I discussed back in September. As before, it is the opportunity to practise and work through the implications of techniques that gives people the insight into how they are going to be able to make use of them in their own situations.
And from there we moved into the phase of the ‘musical Music Team’, which is the notion that has been getting me excited about this kind of session. Here we had the section leaders singing in quartet, directed - in this instance - by one of the assistant directors, and observed by the director and choreographer, working on the chorus’s newest song.
My notes for the session framed this activity thus:
- director to develop interpretation in dialogue with those who will be teaching it
- director to discover which parts of the song may need tlc in rehearsal and to develop strategies to address them
- section leaders to give director(s) feedback on their directing to help them develop in clarity
You see, it so often happens that the team-work in a Music Team works essentially at the level of committee-work. Which is of course useful and important, but misses an opportunity for the people who keep the musical heart of the group beating to work together at a musical level. Workshopping repertoire together before bringing it to the chorus offers all kinds of opportunities that you don’t get by keeping your planning in the verbal register alone.
A glorious instance was where the lead section leader fluffed some words and started apologising profusely. But what the experience had just revealed was that one of the specific challenges of that song was that the lead part carried a much greater burden of lyric content than the other three parts. So, we could then start devising teaching strategies to support this particular learning need - some for use in the section rehearsal, but others that would inform full-chorus rehearsals or the warm-ups.
This process works in a similar register to the guideline that directors should make themselves familiar with all the vocal lines in music they conduct. Although there’s much you can discover just by looking at music, there are details your singers may need help with that you only discover by walking the music in their vocal shoes. Flushing these issues out as a team not only identifies these moments, but engages everyone in helping solve the problems they present. This is helpful not only to generate ideas but also to inform how other team members go about their activities.
This kind of work does require more investment up front from the music team, but you only have to do it for a few minutes to realise how much rehearsal time with the full chorus you thereby save yourself. It takes a lot longer to dig people out of a hole they have fallen into than to devise teaching methods that stop them falling into it in the first place, after all. And simply the increased insight into the music and they were going to approach it together gave a huge boost to the confidence.
Music Teams spend their chorus lives responsible for the development of the ensemble as a whole. That burden feels lighter when they can also act as a resource to develop each other.