March 2013

Mental Rehearsal - Practical Ramifications

I wrote some years ago in general about the concept of mental rehearsal - that is, the act of running through an event in your imagination to practise how it going to go. And it is a technique I have been using more recently in my workshops on managing performance nerves. A recent session with Magenta brought out some interesting and useful side-effects of the technique, which I have been finding helpful to reflect upon.

The exercise was designed to introduce the technique as something for the singers to take away and use as part of their individual preparation for a festival performance. (And, indeed, the festival itself is serving as a medium to focus upon and develop techniques that can apply to all our performances.) The first part was undertaken sitting down, with our eyes closed.

Managing Yourself, Managing Your Choir

I had an email last week from a director who is grappling with two interrelated issues that I am sure will resonate with a lot of my readers:

  • Singers who have signed up to perform at an event dropping out as the event gets closer
  • Singers texting him before rehearsals with apologies during the time he is trying to get 'into the zone'

In both cases, the problem he identified - rather perceptively I thought - was the effect on his mood. He feels frustrated by these actions, and demotivated. He recognises that this response doesn't help his chorus, and so is looking for ways to manage his own emotions.

On Work-Life Balance...

The concept of work-life balance is a useful one in that world of competitive workaholicism that so many First World people seem to inhabit these days. But it rather assumes that you can tell which is which. How you define 'work' is only ever unproblematic if you are in a full-time salaried post and - possibly more important - don't think about it too much.

The standard concept of 'work' as economic activity is tricky, as any feminist will tell you, for two related reasons. First, it devalues domestic labour; being a stay-at-home mum is not the same as 'not working'. Second, it renders the second shift of women in employment invisible, hiding the inequalities in relationships that persist in the face of ostensible equality in the workplace.

Musicians have an interesting variant of this critique, in that one's most artistically significant work is not necessarily the best paid. Particularly in your early career, the bread-and-butter routine work is there to subsidise those projects where you develop most as a musician, and make your most distinctive contributions. The most extreme example of this: you don't get paid to practise, but that's still the bedrock that all other musical activity is built upon.

Task Focus vs People Focus in Performance

When I first started teaching, I was very focused on the content of lectures, on what I was going to say. In my second year, when I had more of a handle on this, my attention migrated to how the students were getting on with it. By the third year, I became increasingly obsessed with levels of warmth and oxygen in the room.

Similarly, in preparation for performance situations, like many people, my attention starts off on the content - in musical contexts, learning the notes and words, in comedic ones, developing the material. Until I've got a grip on the what, I don't have very much attention available for the how.

But I have also seen performances where the performer is far more focused on the act of performing, of connecting with an audience than on the content. The technique/material was quite ordinary, even mediocre, but the audience feels good about it because the performer is really focused on making them feel good.

On the Inter-connectedness of All (Choral) Things

To-do list for discussionTo-do list for discussionOn the recent abcd Midlands Conductors' Day, our final activity was a trouble-shooting session. We compiled a list of the top two or three things that each director felt would most help their choir to get sorted out, and then spent some time on each discussing different approaches to them. This kind of session works on the principle that it's much easier to solve other people's problems than your own, and even with your own, just talking them through with people who understand but aren't involved can open up all kinds of new ideas.

One item on our list gave a wonderful demonstration of how so many dimensions of leading a choir are related to one another. We can divide the craft up into all kinds of areas for convenience of training and development - musical, technical, leadership, organisational - but when dealing with the practical questions of how to get things done, we'll find ourselves moving through all these areas in turn.

Open Letter to Festival Organisers

I just want to be a winner...I just want to be a winner...The local competitive festival has been part of the infrastructure of the amateur arts in the UK since the 1880s. Supported by the British and International Federation of Festivals, dedicated volunteers put immense amounts of care and effort into maintaining these annual events around the country. I want to start by saying that these are a force for good in the universe, and I am very grateful to everyone who makes them happen.

As a participant, however, I can't help but notice that they can often feel like very small occasions. I'm talking here primarily about the choral days, as - you'll be astonished to hear - those are the bits of festivals I mostly experience. There are often only one or two choirs in each class, and very few people in the audience.

Coaching and Workshop Bookings

If you have had a coaching session or workshop with me in the last two or three years, you will have recently received an email that says:

Hello there!

I am getting in touch with people I’ve worked with in recent times to make sure I can meet as many coaching/workshop needs as possible. I find I’m having to do a fair bit of diary juggling for the period from Easter 2013 right round to Easter 2014, and I’ll be able to fit in more groups if I can sort out dates for multiple people at once rather than booking people in on an ad hoc basis.

Silence is Golden...

restI've been thinking about rests. As in the silent bits within a piece of music, not as in putting your feet up with a cuppa. In fact, that distinction shows why people tend to overlook them. The name makes it sound like the music is off-duty.

If you use Sibelius as a notation program, you start off with a page-full or rests and the act of writing music involves replacing rests with sounds. This makes it feel like rests are the bits that you couldn't be bothered to compose.

But rests are not merely negative, not-music moments. They have value for both performers and listeners, and their deployment by composers and arrangers can involve a great deal of careful thought. They are there to do things for you that no other musical element can do.

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