June 2011

Bristol Fashion Takin’ it Slow


On Sunday I was back with my friends in Bristol Fashion, for my fourth coaching visit since May 2009. And what a difference they have made in two years! The clarity, resonance and confidence in their singing has really improved, and each time there are more singers on the risers – it is a sure sign that things are going well when you have more people wanting to join than are leaving.

One of the encouraging aspects of coaching this chorus is that each time I go, I find the things we were working on last time well embedded and secure, allowing us to move onto new challenges. The chorus uses the technique of bubbling for continuity of breath and enhanced resonance with so much more ease and security than this time last year, and the issues over synchronisation we focused on last August are likewise much improved.

On Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards

caseforhandsI’ve recently been reading Matthew Crawford’s book The Case For Working With Your Hands, which is an extended critique of modern education and workplace practices. It’s one of those books where the over-riding impression is, ‘a bit ranty, but he’s a got a point’. Specifically, actually, the framing chapters are where it’s most ranty, and the middle is where he develops his more positive and compelling case about the relationship between intellect and ethics manifest in practical tasks. So if you can get past the opening, it’s worth it.

Carfield Community Charisma

carfieldjun11I spent Monday evening in Sheffield working with Carfield Community Choir on their performance skills. Last time I saw them we were working on ways to develop a sense of ensemble, and they have definitely developed a much greater sense of cohesiveness since then. They are now at the stage where they are ready to move on from a definition of success that is about not making mistakes to one that is more artistically ambitious, and it was a great pleasure to help them explore this new and exciting territory.

On Musical Fluency

When you listen to a lot of live performances, you start to observe patterns of behaviour that you wouldn’t notice watching only a couple of times. So the recent rash of barbershop quartet contests I’ve had the opportunity to watch, whether as judge or audience member, have given me new insights into how adult amateur musicians operate.

What I have learned is that there is a consistent correlation between how a quartet sings a tune-up chord and how they deliver the song that follows, both vocally and gesturally. There are three possibilities:

Metaphors, Emotions and Confidence

My friend Sarra recently sent me a link that included chapter from Anthony Pay’s book-in-progress on the use of metaphors in clarinet teaching. At least I think it’s still in progress – the text was from some time ago but I can’t find any evidence yet of its publication. Anyway, when it does come out, I’ll be happy to recommend it on the basis of this extract. He is clearly an experienced and thoughtful teacher – thoughtful both about the processes of playing his instrument, and about how people learn.

The overall thrust of his argument is that metaphors are useful aids to the learning process, and that different metaphors give access to different aspects of the task you are trying to learn. This is a subject on which I have been known reflect, too, of course.

One of the examples he gave was of the metaphors we use to describe emotional states:

The Talent Code: Implications for Rehearsal Methods

talentcodecoverMy recent reading of Daniel Coyle’s book spawned not only the some arguably rather arcane thoughts about Schenker, but has also had me reflecting on the implications for rehearsal methods. Much of his discussion focuses on what deep practice looks like in individual pursuits such as learning an instrument, and the challenge then becomes how to generate that experience in a group learning environment.

Ensembles offer both advantages and disadvantages in this respect. The advantage is the social nature of learning. People who are more confident in a particular skill can model it for those who are just developing it, keeping the desired result fresh and present in their consciousness. The disadvantage is the possibility of coasting. In an ensemble there are other people to hide ‘behind’, and you can periodically switch off your active learning engagement and just go with the flow without necessarily being called to task.

Cultural Hierarchies and Bling

I’ve been thinking recently about the visual dimension of musical performances, and cultural attitudes about High Art and vulgarity. The immediate spur for these thoughts was the Sweet Adelines convention in Birmingham, but they’re also plugging into things I’ve been thinking about at least since my PhD days.

So, the concern with costume and make-up and general blingification is of course the aspect of barbershop that people affiliated with other genres sometimes take as evidence of triviality. It’s The Music that matters, they say, not all this frippery stuff. Diamante earrings and choreography are tricksy things in this view, at best distracting the audience from the Real Thing that is The Music, and at worst trying to disguise the fact that the music isn’t very good. It’s all style-over-substance, is the criticism.

Masterclass with Jim Henry

Jim Henry in actionJim Henry in action

Another of the many delights at the recent BABS Convention was a masterclass run by Jim Henry on the first afternoon. Dr Jim was at the convention as bass in the 2009 International Champion quartet Crossroads, but of course he is also director of the Ambassadors of Harmony and Director of Choral Studies at the University of Missouri-St Louis. So it was only sensible to get the benefit of his choral expertise while he was there!

He spent an hour or so working with a large chorus made up of the Great Western Chorus of Bristol augmented by a large number of audience members who were invited to participate. He worked on standard elements of choral craft - breath, vowel and placement – with a brief diversion into the world of rhythmic integrity. So, the content was nothing surprising, but what was striking was the degree of improvement he effected in a very short time.

Three things in particular struck me as central to his effectiveness – and they were less to do with what he was doing than how he was doing it.

Indirectly Feeding the Birds

One of the highlights of last weekend’s BABS Convention, for me, was hearing Cottontown Chorus premiere four arrangements I had done for them based on the music from Mary Poppins. The big song-and-dance numbers were of course a wonderful arranging challenge, but it’s their ballad, ‘Feed the Birds’, I’d like to talk about today. I found it a fascinating song to arrange because it is so emotionally rich in effect, though its most memorable lyrics are utterly mundane. It is a wonderful case study in indirectness of expression, of how to evoke a deep emotional response without ever really stating in the lyric why anyone should care.

A Special Weekend

Cottontown flying kites to finish their show setCottontown flying kites to finish their show setLast weekend saw British barbershoppers descend in droves on Llandudno for the 2011 BABS convention. This one was a special one for me in several ways. First, because I had the honour of hearing no fewer than eight of my arrangements receive their first performances. Five were in the chorus contest (sung by Telfordaires, Tuxedo Junction and the Cottontown Chorus), one in the quartet finals (sung by the Serious Chord Squad), and two in the Sunday afternoon show. Current LABBS gold medallists Amersham A Cappella and retiring BABS champs, the Great Western Chorus, also aired arrangements of mine in the Saturday night show.

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