If you came here via the front page, you may have observed a notice announcing a set of new themed workshops I’ll be offering from the New Year. More details can be found on the menu to the left, under the ‘helping performers’ label. I’ll still be available to do bespoke coaching of course, but I’ve developed the new offerings as a way to help ensembles become more strategic in how they plan their skills development.
Developing educational experiences is not a new experience for me. In my fourteen years as a full-time lecturer in music colleges, I developed a lot of these, from individual classes, to modules a semester or a year in length, to entire programmes. So, I have a good sense of method, of what kinds of procedures to go through to ensure you come up with a plan that’s going to deliver a useful learning experience.
Developing workshops for a wider audience, however, presents a whole set of new challenges. When you’re designing a degree course, you can profile the participants pretty accurately in advance, because you’ll have an admissions policy that means you can guarantee certain prior skills and experiences that your course will build on. When you’re designing workshops for community choirs, there is a much wider variation in current skill level, not just between choirs, but also within them. My workshop plans therefore need to include diagnostic strategies to make sure I can tailor the content and delivery to the needs of the specific groups I work with.
Of course, much of this profiling can be done in advance. All the workshops are intended to be customised - the outcomes are articulated in advance, but routes taken to get there will depend on the group’s previous experience and current repertoire – so I’ll be asking all sorts of questions at the time of booking about achievements to date and aspirations for the future. And I learned a lot about profiling choirs when I was out visiting rehearsals to research my choral conducting book – not just acquiring knowledge about the kinds challenges that face choirs engaged with different types of repertoire at different stages of development, but developing my capacity to respond flexibly to new things when I encounter them. Actually, I’d say that this is my favourite thing about going out to do workshops – this process of figuring out exactly what it is that this particular group of singers need at this particular moment of their musical journey to help them on their way.
The other dimension in which the workshop development requires more flexibility than course design in an institutional setting is planning something that can be delivered over different timescales. Some choirs like to have visiting educators come during their regular rehearsal slots, whilst others prefer to set a whole day aside as a special event. For repertoire-based coaching, this is easy to accommodate – the clinician just has to agree priorities with the director according to the time available and get on with it. But for a themed workshop, you need to define outcomes that are general enough to be developed over quite different periods of time while still being specific enough to be useful.
For all themed workshops, I am offering a post-workshop follow-up document that summarises what we covered. I initially thought I might actually bring this with me to leave with the ensemble, but as I worked through the planning process it became clear that a generic one prepared in advance will never reflect the actual experience of a particular workshop, given all these variables. So, for both planning and follow-up I’ve had to develop a way of preparing workshops that provides enough structure and content prepared in advance to have a clear sense of direction with enough flexibility to adapt in real time as I get to know the particular singers I’m working with.
And of course, this isn’t so very different from regular teaching. However well-defined your admissions policy, there is always a variety of skill, experience in the room – not to mention of personality and mood and learning style and styles of humour and all those other things that you don’t filter for at admissions. So the flexibility the workshops ask for may be different in degree, but not in kind.