Ireland Unlimited

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My Irish tour continued with a weekend’s work with Ireland Unlimited, the country’s premier barbershop chorus. Drawn from across the country, they meet for one day a month, and the skills developed centrally have also been significant in supporting and developing the skills in local choruses. I suspect Ireland Unlimited of having a significant hand in the improvement in performances I noticed when judging the IABS Convention this time last year.

The invitation to Ireland Unlimited’s retreat was the kernel around which my mini-tour had grown. I was working alongside Jon Conway, who has been working with IU on singing for some time, and as ever it was both stimulating and relaxing to cox-and-box with another coach. Having different faces in front of them keeps the chorus fresher, and we each get more chances to catch our breath and collect our thoughts, so our coaching is that much more focused and to the point. And of course it is always a joy and delight to see experienced colleagues in action and learn from them.

One of the ways in which the retreat differentiated itself from their usual full-day rehearsals was in the use of themed sessions. These moved the attention away from simply working in repertoire, to wider concepts that would be useful for (and were presented via) the repertoire that was the weekend’s primary focus, but which would also transfer off into other material. Thus, Jon led sessions on ‘Singlish’ and blend, I introduced Latin Rhythms and the idea of ‘tension and release’, and we shared a session on mental preparation for performance.

Using this kind of multi-dimensional approach was useful for several reasons. First there was the obvious facilitation of transferability. Musical skills need both experiential and theoretical dimensions. Introducing skills through application made them tangible, while introducing concepts in a themed way made them portable. At the same time, it kept attention fresh: it didn’t feel like we were hammering away at a limited pool of musical content, because our focus was on a varied pool of vocal and musical approaches to them. The continuity of repertoire in this context became a stabilising rather than a wearying factor.

As well as alternating in leading sessions, Jon and I also enjoyed some sessions of coaching as a team. At the start of these, we politely took it in turns to offer suggestions to the chorus, and then as we all got deeper into the process, it became much more fluid and flexible. Particularly useful were times where the director needed to discuss a point with one coach to make a decision. At these times, the other could nip in to address a detail with the chorus so that they weren’t kept waiting with nothing to do while the decision was being made.

A two-day retreat offers extra depth than a single-day rehearsal not only in doubling the amount of time to work together, but also in the time to bond between times. Saturday evening saw the chorus sit down to a meal together, and this was followed by an evening of singing, both as a whole group, and with several performances from pick-up quartets.

One might tend to think of these sessions as having a greater value in social bonding than in musical development. Certainly the type and level of concentration brought to bear on singing is rather different in such settings (mild understatement moment), and one wouldn’t usually recommend rehearsing under the influence of quite as much alcohol that flows over the course of these evenings.

But, you know, I think this kind of evening still participates in the educational process. After the formal learning of the day, all kinds of informal follow-ups were reinforcing and embedding the ideas we had played with. There was a wonderful quality of play as people identified and exaggerated patterns of tension and release in different songs, and the deliberate contravention of elements of pronunciation worked on during the day was arguably an exercise in the inner game of Will. And while the synchronisation of an ensemble is never as good in restaurant stacking as it is in a more orthodox choral formation, the extra work the singers have to do to listen to and coordinate with each other stands them in good stead.

If everyone had just gone away and not spent the evening together, I’m sure we would still have heard evidence of the new skills having benefitted from a night’s sleep. But I’m pretty sure they were more thoroughly integrated into everyone’s psyches and voices for a thorough night’s partying.

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