Team Coaching with Amersham A Cappella

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Warming up on Saturday morningWarming up on Saturday morning
I spent the weekend with my friends in Amersham A Cappella at their annual retreat. I was one of three coaches for the weekend, along with Nancy Kelsall and Sandra Lea-Riley of Eu4ia fame, and I found the team approach an interesting change from my regular coaching experience.

It’s been some years since I did much team coaching, and I found this weekend went significantly more smoothly than that previous experience. I’m sure being more experienced helped, as did a more equal relationship within the team (rather than being the junior partner – which is one of those problems that self-corrects over time of course). But most important was working from established relationships - Nancy and Sandra are already well accustomed to working together, and we’ve known each other a good long while too. I first worked with Eu4ia back in 2005, and we’ve spent enough time discussing ideas about music and performance together in the intervening years to have a pretty good idea of each other’s philosophies.

So, there are two potential dangers with a coaching team. One is that they will get tangled up – either contradicting each other or competing for attention. The other is that the chorus could feel they’re not getting value of each as each is only working with them a third of the time.

The first of these was never really a significant danger with this particular team because of these established relationships. And we’d spent time in advance discussing the weekend’s goals with their director, Helen, so we could all go in with a common agenda. Chorus feedback indicated that it was helpful to see how the vocal, presentational and musical perspectives on the performance could reinforce each other.

Chorus feedback also suggested that having a team of coaches helped keep the attention fresh – they got a change of face, and we didn’t get too much chance to get bogged down as we each had to be efficient to complete our task and hand over.

And in the event, they got significantly more out of us than a third of a weekend each. This was partly by means of parallel scheduling: after lunch on Saturday, we each did a half-hour session three times with one-third of the chorus. This not only made efficient use of our time, but it also allowed us to focus in on specific skills, and to diagnose where help was needed at a much more individual level. (It also reinforced the weekend’s theme of personal responsibility, as singing in a group of 15 is quite a different proposition from singing in a chorus of 45!) Likewise, on Sunday morning, Sandra took the bass section away for some part-specific work while Nancy and I continued with Helen and the rest of the chorus.

But even when we were all working together, they were getting more value out of us than they would have they had booked us each separately. There were several factors to this. One was thinking time: there was space to identify the next step and formulate a strategy for it while the chorus were engaged with another coach, so there was minimal down-time. And if one coach needed to have a quiet word with Helen or with the presentation team, another could step in to work with the chorus so they weren’t left dangling. And spelling each other throughout the weekend also kept us fresher so that we still had energy and imagination to offer the chorus right to the end of the second day. We were all tired by the end, coaches and singers alike, but we weren’t flagging: there was still enough fuel in the tank to keep building right through.

The other thing that’s great about working in this kind of team is what you learn. Actually, one of the things I love about coaching anyway is that sense of a cooperative creation of knowledge – the way that both coach and ensemble discover things together that they wouldn’t have known without the joint experience. But team-coaching gives both a whole set of extra ingredients to learn from, and a little extra space to observe and reflect how they’re working.

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