November 2012

Capital Connection, 3rd Installment: Managing Nerves

capital3Sunday took me back down to London for the third of my quick-succession visits to Capital Connection. This time we had a little longer to spend together, so we could start and end the afternoon getting into the detail of repertoire, with a presentation/discussion session on performance psychology sandwiched in the middle.

This session was based upon the one I prepared for a LABBS education day back in April, but with a longer time-frame to play with we were able to unfold the content out into longer exercises and discussion sessions en route. For instance, instead of just introducing the distinction between outcome, process and personal goals, we could spend some time discussing what kind of goals would fit in each category for the chorus at the moment.

Charisma Workshop no. 2

charismaparticipants2Saturday saw choral directors from around the UK brave the winds the floods of the previous few days to come to Birmingham for the second iteration of my Conduct with Charisma workshop. As I remarked after the last one, this kind of event brings with it that wonderful ensemble quality that you learn things together that you wouldn't learn exploring the subject by yourself. Filtering the material through the different perspectives, backgrounds and assumptions that the different participants bring with them gives everyone a rounder and more nuanced understanding than would otherwise be available. The social dimension of learning is about what you can learn as well as how

Charismatic Case Study: The Lessons of History

I have quipped before that when testing out ideas to do with charisma, a basic acid test is to check if they work for both Hitler and Jesus. This sounds like a frivolous way of doing things, but it actually works quite well, because it takes two major figures whose stories are well known (and therefore easily accessible for thought experiments), but operating with very different moral frameworks.

A recent article in the BBC online News Magazine (written as a trailer for a BBC2 documentary series) gives a good framework for demonstrating this. It’s an account by historian Laurence Rees of the factors that led to Hitler’s popularity as a leader, intended as a cautionary tale for countries going through economic turmoil today. Its basic premise is that Hitler was unlikely leader - seen in his younger days as something of an oddball - but that a combination of circumstance and strategy propelled him into an astonishingly powerful position.

Oriana Openings


The weekend took me over to Minden in Germany, to work with a capella ensemble Oriana in advance of their Advent concert on December 2nd. They are preparing a selection of repertoire that is strongly themed in terms of text, but very varied in style and origin - from Renaissance counterpoint to spirituals.

Consequently, one of the primary areas we worked on was mood-set. The group had previously identified the starts of pieces as an area that would benefit attention - like many ensembles they had found that it sometimes took them a bar or two to really get into the flow of a piece. And a programme that propels you into a new musical and emotional world every few minutes is going to make particular demands on this dimension of your performance.

Capital Connection, Second Installment: Upgrading Christmas


I was back in Ruislip on Wednesday for my second coaching visit in quick succession to Capital Connection. We were continuing with the skills agendas we had started last time, but - given the time of year - we did so via Christmas repertoire.

It is a commonplace in groups that maintain a performing repertoire that the skill level you had when you first learn a piece tends to get embedded in the performance of that piece. And it can be hard, therefore, to develop the performance as the skill level improves. Sometimes the reason why music gets dropped from repertoire is less about the song itself than about shedding the traces of past habits that it still contains.

Christmas repertoire gives a strange variant on this process. You start in on rehearsing it each autumn for a relatively intensive period, perform it quite a lot, and then put it to one side for the next 9 months or so. When you come back to it, it gives you a snap-shot of where you were the previous year.

Essex Double


After my day with Rhapsody in Peterborough, I had a day in Essex coaching Flame quartet in the morning and Chorus Iceni in the afternoon. Flame is a new quartet, though its members bring a considerable breadth and depth of previous experience to the party, while Chorus Iceni are fresh back from achieving their best results ever (by a considerable margin) at LABBS Convention last month. So there was a good sense of momentum in both sessions, if for different reasons.

With Flame, we spent a good deal of time using a new coaching technique I had actually devised the day before with Rhapsody. I have been advocating slow practice as a way to get into the detail and give yourself time really to hear the harmonies for a good long time. But this has usually been an analytical process with a technical focus, rather than serving artistic goals.

Taking Rhapsody to the Edge

I spent Saturday in Peterborough with Rhapsody Chorus for what turned out to be an intensive coaching session. Part of the challenge was from working on music that was as yet very fresh in preparation, so the singers were working harder all day than they would with more familiar repertoire. At the same time, the very freshness meant we weren't having to try and move beyond any particularly ingrained habits, so the distance travelled was commensurately greater.

A theme that emerged several times during the day, and then reappeared in our debrief session at the end was that the place where effective work takes place is at the edge of your current ability. If you can do something comfortably, it's having a nice time singing (which isn't itself a band thing to do!) but you're not particularly learning anything. The things you need to spend rehearsal times on are the things that you can't quite do yet, but you can get close enough that you know a few more tries will get you there.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming and Other Theoretical Traditions

The comment thread following my post back in May about the Neuro-Linguistic Programming idea of anchoring got me thinking in more detail than hitherto about the relationship NLP has with other theoretical traditions. I've been finding a useful (if not central) part of my relationship with the world for a decade or more, providing some useful ways of thinking about the learning process and the coaching process.

However, I've been aware for some time that academia has a largely snooty attitude towards NLP, for a number of reasons, some of which NLP has brought upon itself. There is an anti-theoretical streak particularly to the early literature, which is never going to endear it to scholarly minds, plus the training models tend strongly to the profit-led and uncritical. There is a mistrust among scholars that NLP is a bit of a snake-oil outfit, more fake-tan than substance.

Exploring Expressive Performance with Diversity Choir


I had a trip down to Kent on Saturday to do an afternoon’s workshop with Diversity Choir on the theme of ‘Expressive Performance and the Musical Imagination’ as part of their annual retreat. We built the workshop around the music they are preparing for their concert next month, on the principle that, since the goal was to explore methods to enhance the communicative impact of the choir’s performances, the most direct way to do this was to develop them in the context of music they will performing in the near future.

We approached the workshop through the ideas of the Manager and the Communicator. These are always useful concepts, but you notice it particularly when you are working with music that is only partway through the rehearsal process. You need the Manager on duty a good deal of the time for this stage of learning, but it is also the right moment to give an explicit role to the Communicator, so that the performers’ mental map of the song has meaning, imagination and imagery built in to it, rather than just layered on top of a technical learning process.

Revisiting Avon Harmony

Through the looking-glass...Through the looking-glass...Thursday evening took me down to Bristol for a follow-up visit to Avon Harmony. I last worked with them in September, and it was gratifying to both them and me that I could hear a distinct difference made by all the work they have put in during the intervening six weeks. In particular, I noticed that not only were they much better at bubbling than before, but also all the skills that bubbling develops had improved too - continuity of breath, forward placement of tone.

The balance of coaching shifted from last time so that I was working much more through their director, Alex, rather than directly with the chorus. Since we last worked together, he has developed a much more controlled and specific gestural style, losing a lot of the distractions that his energy had been introducing. There was more of a sense of technique to be refined than the raw musical intention he had previously been running on.

Capital Connection, First Installment

capconOn Wednesday night I was down in West London to work with Capital Connection in the first of a series of three visits planned for November. It's a chorus I know quite well, but it's been a little while since I've heard them, so found myself with a pleasing combination of a previously-established trust that comes from familiarity with a freshness of listening that comes from distance.

It also creates an interestingly different dynamic when you know you are going to be following up again shortly from when any repeat visit is going to be some months away. The process of prioritising changes when you can decide to pursue something now or to leave it until next time. You can have a sense of developing an agenda that spreads beyond the one session, setting some processes in motion to return to again, while reserving other things for later, knowing they'll respond more effectively to attention once the highest priority areas are more established.

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