Coaching

On Breath

breathWhen two people you know mention a book in the same week, especially when it's a book whose title relates directly to your core professional interest, you know you’re going to have to read it. James Nestor’s Breath isn’t written for singers (although one of his many eccentric case studies is a choral conductor), it is written for human beings who breathe. But of course those of us involved in singing like to think this is one of the things that makes our craft healthful, so it seemed prudent to check it out and see exactly how well things cross-reference.

Breath presents itself as one of those revelatory, ‘this book will change your life’ kind of narratives, and with its interweaving of ancient, traditional texts and modern science (though rather fringe science in some cases), skirts along that line between ‘engagingly plausible’ and ‘woo’. As one of the friends who had read it put it, ‘Some of it is quite bonkers, but some things make a lot of sense’. So, it’s not one to read uncritically, and I’m going to focus my discussion of it on the bits which seemed more likely.

(This may, therefore, turn into a display of confirmation bias, ahem.)

Back in Person with Surrey Harmony

How long since I've been able to post a warming-up pic?!?How long since I've been able to post a warming-up pic?!?

Well, that was a treat! Wednesday saw my first live coaching visit since last Spring. It was Surrey Harmony, down in Coulsdon, whom I’d not worked with for 6 years or so. They had two new songs just off the copy, one of which I had arranged for them, and were ready to get their teeth into bringing the music to life.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how refreshing it is for an ensemble to have a different consciousness in the room, hearing new things, imagining different possibilities from the ones they are used to. It is equally refreshing for the coach to hear different voices, to diagnose different strengths and needs; these encounters stimulate the creativity in ways that your regular rehearsal can’t. The familiarity of a long-term working relationship brings the opportunity to build, but by definition doesn’t force you to listen and think afresh in the same way as you have to when faced with the unfamiliar.

Coaching and the Conductor-Choir Bond

Unmasked for the photocall!Unmasked for the photocall!On Wednesday I had my first live coaching experience since the start of Covid, when Andy Allen from Hallmark of Harmony came to work the Telfordaires. It was such a treat to have the input from a fresh consciousness after all this time, and it gave us all a real lift. And the experience got me reflecting on the ways a coach affects the intra-musical interactions of director and singers.

Those who have read my second book will know a good deal about my research into the nature and operation of the conductor-choir bond already; it is also a theme that runs through this blog over the years. But I don’t often write about it from the inside, from the first-hand experience of the conductor.

Coaching Focus on Re-Opening: Reconnecting and Rebuilding

Having announced in my last post that I am ready to welcome individuals and small ensembles for coaching, I thought it might be useful to work through some of the things that people might need to work on at this moment. We have all made heroic efforts to stay in touch and make what music we can over the past year, and small ensembles have at least had the chance to meet up outdoors during the spring to start rebuilding.

Still, there are lots of ways in which we will be feeling the effects of such a long hiatus in our regular musicking, and I have been giving a lot of thought to what people are likely to need help with, and how I can support them in this rebuilding process. The key areas I have identified are as follows:

Opening Up (Literally) for Coaching

Opening up for ventilationOpening up for ventilation

Now that up to 6 people can meet indoors in England, and non-professional singing groups of up to 6 can also re-start indoor rehearsing, I am once again able to welcome individuals and small ensembles for coaching. I’ll send you a copy of my formal risk assessment on booking, but here are the key safety measures I’ll have in place to protect us all:

Rehearsing Remotely in Granite City

GCCmay21I spent Tuesday evening with my friends up at Granite City Chorus, as guest director for an evening’s rehearsal. Their MD Peter is currently on paternity leave, so they got this date with me in the diary some months ago so the Music Team who are running the rest of their rehearsals could look forward to having a break and the chance to be chorus members rather than leaders. Peter did pop in for a few minutes, but I didn’t get a screen-shot until after he had gone, so you’ll have to take my word for it that his baby looks adorable.

One of the things I reflected on afterwards was how in some ways it is an easier task to deputise for a rehearsal in an online mode compared to working in-person. Well, to start with, I wouldn’t pop up top Aberdeen for 90 mins from Birmingham in the normal run of things!

Inside the Arranging Process with Cheshire Chord Company

CCCmar21On Thursday evening I joined the Cheshire Chord Company to offer a presentation on the arranging process, walking through some of the practical and artistic decisions that inform how a chart takes shape. As ever with these kinds of events, I came away far more interested in the questions than they were asking than what I had presented – after all, I knew what I was going to say in advance as I’d prepared it, but the questions take the conversation into all kinds of interesting places that I’d not necessarily anticipated.

One question that I’m often asked and find almost impossible to answer is what is my favourite chart. I’m generally poor at picking favourites of anything, but I think the reason it is particularly hard with arrangements is that every time I am arranging something for someone, for them it is their special thing. So, for the duration of the time I’m working on it, it is my special thing too. If I want the groups I arrange for to be delighted with their music, I can’t approach it as ‘just another chart’.

Rethinking Retreats with Granite City Chorus

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.

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