LABBS Directors Weekend 2018

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I sometimes wonder if the Ronseal approach* to naming the directors’ events we run for the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers underplays their sheer wonderfulness. But there’s something grounding in the balance. Just as an elevated conducting gesture really needs to be accompanied by a something that connects with the core/lower body to maintain the equilibrium of the voices, so the greater the extravaganza, the more it benefits from a matter-of-fact title.

For it was an extravaganza. We had practical work for all 50+ delegates, nurtured by our standing directors faculty; we had a rich and varied programme of electives led by 13 of our association’s most successful directors; we had the services of Cheshire Chord Company one day to explore a brand new arrangement being put together for the first time and a Volunteer Chorus the next, representing 60+ music team members and aspiring musical leaders who lent their voices in exchange for the learning experience.

Binding this all together, we had the heart and brain of our guest educator, Mo Field. There are three things I want in a guest educator for this kind of event: depth of expertise, both technical and artistic, barbershop hero status, and kindness. Mo delivers abundantly in all three, and you can’t help but think that in her the third is key to the first two. You emerge from both her instruction and her conversation feeling affirmed, supported in your endeavours, and enabled to continue your journey with a renewed sense of purpose and delight.

I shall blog another day about the collection of bons mots from her that fill my notebook (she has a great knack for turn of phrase), but for now would like to reflect on one of her central themes of treating our singers as if they are the complex and intelligent human beings they actually are.

She talked about this in her keynote address, asking whether we are breeding out the intellect from our singers with our typical controlling, technical approaches to rehearsal. If you approach the rehearsal as fixing problems, the singer experiences themselves as lacking, and each time you repeat an instruction, hears ‘nope, you still haven’t got it’. If you approach the rehearsal as developing the artistic truths in the music, the singer experiences themselves as a participating artist with full contributions to offer.

She encouraged us to develop our lexicons – to find a vocabulary that reached to our vision, and to refresh it as we developed as musicians. (And as she said all this, I thought of the blog post I had scheduled for Sunday morning, and thought: I’ve got to tell people I’d planned for that to appear before I knew what she was going to talk about. I can *so* see why people have been trying to get us to spend time together.)

Mo demonstrated how this principle can play out in practice in our opening plenary session, when she was tasked with putting together a brand new arrangement that had never been rehearsed before. I’d put this into the programme as part of a theme of working with new music. LABBS choruses are increasingly and excitingly moving away from the same-old, same-old repertoire of barbershop of yesteryear, and bringing new arrangements to both the contest stage and their wider performance repertoire. So it’s time we supported our directors in meeting the specific challenges that this presents them with.

So, Cheshire Chord Company had learned the individual parts in sections, so we could see how our guest educator would go about bringing the song to life.

She proceeded with an approach that embodied her belief that human beings understand music and will respond to it. She asked them simply to sing the song, without direction, as they felt it should go. Over successive iterations, she asked them to sing with their eyes closed to help them find their inner compasses, and be led by their ears, and to sing the lines to an open vowel to find out what the music was telling them when not distracted by the lyrics.

And the chorus responded with nuance and shape and heart. They sang like the human beings with life experiences that they are. We all had a few damp-eyed moments as the music brought us close to our own truths. Hearing it aloud, I remembered I had been working on it while my mother was still alive. (I just checked, the sheet music file is dated two days before she died.)

There is of course far more to reflect on from a weekend like this than I can fit in a single post. But the point of these kinds of events to fuel our imaginations for months to come.

And in the meantime, I’m off to teach at Harmony University: next stop Nashville!

* For those who don’t get the reference, Ronseal was a range of DIY products sold as practical, down-to-earth, useful things with the slogan, ‘Does exactly what it says on the tin’.

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