LABBS Directors Day 2022

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Almost two years to the day since the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers last held an in-person education event, we gathered in Coventry on Saturday for a day of director training. We had a curriculum built round various aspects of the recovery process all choruses are going through at the moment, underpinned by practical work for all delegates that focused on the relationship between listening and conductor gesture. This is the central element of the conductor’s craft, and precisely what had been ripped out of the process during the whole Zoom era.

A recurrent theme in this blog after these kinds of events is the sense of coming home with a full note-book. That cliché becomes meaningful again after such an education drought. For sure, there have been all kinds of online events to attend as either leader or delegate, and I learned things from both types of participation, but the richness and depth of learning you get with a room full of people is just in another league. I had conversations with a number of people about how we’d got to the point last year where we were just running on empty, and how nourishing it felt to finally spend time in person with other directors. The full pages of our notebooks reflect the refilling of our spirits.

Another common theme in these conversations was relief at the commonality of our experiences. Directors feel responsible for their choruses (and rightly so), but if everyone is experiencing lower numbers than they had before COVID and/or intermittent attendance, it’s probably not the fault of the individual directors. We still have to play the hand we’ve been dealt, but it helps to know that the challenges we face are indeed a result of the extraordinary situation, rather than just reflecting our own failings.

A lot of what ended up in my notebook I’m not going to share with you. Whilst we recorded the plenary sessions, we maintained a no recording rule for the elective sessions so that people could say what they needed to say without worrying about who might hear it at a later date. What happened in the electives stays in the electives.

But I can share some more global conclusions I’ve drawn from those experiences. The big penny-drop for me was this: to start from where we are now. I remember Charlie Metzger talking years ago about teaching special needs children: it doesn’t matter what a child should be able to do by such-and-such age, you meet them at whatever level they’re actually at and work from there.

The same applies to our ensembles. It doesn’t matter what we used to be like or used to be able to do, or what we feel we should have achieved by this stage. Fretting about that just makes us anxious and doesn’t make us better. It is much more useful to look at ourselves as we are, decide where we want to head, and work out our next steps on that journey from where we are right now. And where we want to head might not be what we might have chosen in the past either. We don’t have to be beholden to our past desires, but can decide afresh what goals mean the most to us now.

The other thing I found really useful was a constellation of activities you might call ‘structured bright-siding’. When everyone in a session identified and shared their chorus’s current strengths, for instance, you could feel a sense of corporate optimism rising through the room. We tend to focus so much on the challenges (because they’re, well, challenging), but that reminder of what we already have provided much-needed clarity. This is the solid ground on which we stand to face those challenges.

Likewise, a discussion of how the widespread current issue of low and/or intermittent attendance might be turned into an opportunity provided a real sense of purpose. There are things you can’t do when you’re missing half your singers, but on the flip side, there are things you can only do when you have fewer people. Let’s do those while we can.

And the day itself was something of an embodiment of that principle. We’d planned it such that we could accommodate 70+ participants, including hands-on practical work for everyone. In the event we had around 30, including the faculty. This brought a degree of depth and intimacy to the sessions, and to the conversations in the breaks, that you don’t get with a crowd. And the faculty could all get to attend at least one of the electives each, instead of being flat-out teaching all day. Big groups bring their excitements, but I for one was very grateful to have had that opportunity.

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