Rethinking Retreats with Granite City Chorus

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Instead of a screen-shot: this is us last yearInstead of a screen-shot: this is us last year

When I spent a weekend in late February last year with Granite City Chorus for their annual retreat, it was in a hotel up in the mountains an hour from Aberdeen from Saturday morning to mid-afternoon on Sunday. As it became clear towards the end of 2020 that we weren’t going to be back to in-person singing in time for this year’s event, we had to reimagine it.

The first thing we did was to shorten it. The pleasures of deep immersion in musical learning away from home are not directly replicable online. Quite apart from the fact that everyone would still actually be at home, the cognitive demands of the medium make remote rehearsing more tiring. Plus of course many participants will be spending their working week with their eyes on screens, and need some quality time away from their devices at weekends.

So we went for four hours, starting with 15 minutes of social time, and with two breaks: one just long enough for a comfort stop and leg-stretch, the other longer with time to get the kettle on and give the eyes a rest. Within this, we devised a programme carefully structured to give a balance of singing versus discussion, of whole-chorus versus small-group work, and of work on repertoire versus exercises for musicianship and/or vocal craft. We all felt our brains and voices had had a workout by the end, but I was delighted that people said they felt the time had flown by.

One of the points of balancing whole-chorus work with small-group activities was that the online experience doesn’t have all those bits in the interstices of the formal sessions that add so much to a normal retreat. The informal groupings that form and reform in the breaks, over meals, during the evening social time add so much to an event, both from the perspective of nourishing a chorus’s social bonds, and educationally. Talking about shared experiences cements and deepens both learning and friendships.

So we had to do something within the formal sessions themselves to offer this dimension. Activities involving musical turn-taking and discussion in different sets of groupings offer the chance for meaningful interaction with few enough people at a time that everyone can participate actively, and see each other’s faces at a size where you don’t have to squint to see their features.

The other thing we needed to reimagine was coaching content. In the normal run of things, you go into a coaching session with a general idea of what the chorus has identified as their priorities, but you make the decisions about exactly how to go about it in response to listening to them sing and judging how you can be most immediately helpful. We still did have some of this experience in a session of duetting-coaching, but with its focus on individuals that is too intense an activity to build the whole event round.

So, in the absence of live, real-time insight into what the singers most needed, I organised the focus-points around what the repertoire was asking for. Identifying and exploring a specific musical feature in each song that has an important role in its expressive impact (the phnert in one, the push-beat in another) gave a route in to both practical singing exercises and musical insight.

And musical insight there came a-plenty. There were some really interesting comments about the experiential qualities of singing major 2nds: people identified the sense of tension in the sound, and with it a state of extra cognitive alertness. You have to work to maintain a phnert, whereas you can relax into notes that naturally harmonise. Then we found ourselves drawing parallels between harmony and rhythm: just as the bass-line defines the harmony that the baritone part gives colour to, the straight beats give the framework that the push-beats enliven. Without the ornament, the structure is dull; without the structure, the ornament doesn’t make sense.

And I think our executive summary of the day’s concepts came from the person who drew the conclusion that both harmonic tension and rhythmic anticipation are fundamentally about what’s coming next. This is one of those insights that at one level might seem obvious, but it contains a really important point about the performer’s relationship with their material. It’s not just a matter of singing along with your memory of what you have learned, it’s about getting into the slip-stream of the musical narrative and participating in making it unfold through time.

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