October 2013

LABBS in Llandudno

October by the sea: why they invented the phrase 'bright and breezy'October by the sea: why they invented the phrase 'bright and breezy'The weekend saw the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers head to North Wales for their annual Convention. One of the things it is easy to take for granted when it works, but which should not go unremarked, is the efficiency and competence of the event's organisation.

Saturday was dominated by a mammoth chorus contest, with the first singers on stage at 10 am and the last scheduled for 6.25 pm, so it is more than a little impressive that the whole thing only lost three minutes over the course of the day. The Convention Team and stage crew need to feel very pleased with themselves about this, as it makes the experience so much better for competitors (who can therefore pace their preparation accurately) and audience (who can therefore be sure they get to see the groups they are particularly interested in).

On Receiving Feedback

Everybody in the creative and/or performing worlds (and I suppose many other areas too) needs feedback. We have our own sense of how well we are managing with our tasks, and to what extent we are achieving what we were aiming for, but we need the reality check of other people to calibrate our self-awareness. Does it come over to others as we perceive it ourselves? Do they notice things that we don't? Are the things that are important to us as we work also important to others?

Without feedback, we can't grow.

But receiving feedback can be an emotionally wearing experience. People who may have only a brief or casual relationship with our work can make throw-away remarks that make us question everything we've done. Conversely, people who already love what we do can validate things that really should be questioned. Confidence and self-knowledge are both at risk when we hear commentary on what we do.

Raising the Stakes, Part II

My last post on this subject explored the idea of motivating people to achieve more and better things in rehearsal by raising the stakes. It found a distinction between bullying (which will do this effectively in the short term, but at the cost of making everyone miserable) and game-structures that increased the importance of the desired behaviours without putting personal pressure on people.

This post aims to analyse the various aspects of successful stakes-raising tactics to see how we can generate them in rehearsal. There are four main elements I have identified, and some activities involve more than one of them.

Cleeve Harmony and the Nature of Performance Traditions

cleeveI had a rich and fascinating evening working with Cleeve Harmony near Cheltenham on Tuesday. This is a new barbershop chorus, only 10 months old, and while its membership profile is very typical in its mix of people with previous experience and people new to singing, it is striking for having only one member - its founder-director, Donna Whitehouse - with any previous barbershop experience.

My remit for the evening was primarily to help them with director-chorus communication - working with Donna on aspects of her technique, and working with the chorus on making sense of what she's doing. One of the rewarding things about such an agenda is the sense that whichever end of the equation you address, you also help the other.

New Music and Performing Confidence with Vivat!

Vivat! demonstrating the technique of standing on one leg to engage the coreVivat! demonstrating the technique of standing on one leg to engage the core

Almost exactly a year since I last worked with the West Midlands Police Choir, I was back for another workshop with them on Saturday. They have rebranded as Vivat! and have the air of a much more established choir since I last saw them. This shows not just in seeing more people at the workshop, but seeing them build the infrastructure of longer-term projects and more ambitious, such as fund-raising for a trip to France next year, amongst their more immediate rehearsal and performance goals.

The workshop had two main areas of focus.

With a Lighter Heart(beat)

heartbeatThursday took me up to Marple to work with my friends in Heartbeat Chorus. It's a couple of years since I've visited, and they have attracted lots of new members in the meantime - a sure sign that something has been going well there.

So the lightness in the title was nothing to do with numbers - quite the opposite! In fact, part of our challenge for the evening was taking a body of sound that big and getting the nimbleness and flexibility that their repertoire was asking for. I don't know why larger bodies of people should, en masse, feel like they need to move more deliberately - probably something to do with the attention required to coordinate with greater numbers. But I guess it is why it is commensurately more exciting when you achieve dexterity with a big group.

So we experienced lightness in several dimensions.

Raising the Stakes in Rehearsal

Back when I was taking lessons in Alexander Technique, my teacher introduced me to bit of psychological re-framing that I found rather striking. It was to do with habit and habit-change (of course - that is central to what AT is about), and how you manage at that point when you do something when you remember to, but often forget and let habit take over. 'If I gave you £200 every time you did this, would you do it more often?' he asked. 'Well, I can't afford to do that, but if you are able do it for £200, you are able to do it for nothing.'

What he did here was to raise the stakes. He changed forgetting to do something from a matter of little concern to one of significant lost gain. Never mind that it was purely hypothetical, he had me more emotionally and attentionally invested in the exercise.

How Much are you Hearing?

We all know that listening is central to ensemble music - the participants listening to each other, and in bigger ensembles, the director listening to the whole. And if you asked any member of an ensemble if they were listening, they would reply that of course they were. But equally there may be all sorts of stuff that's going on that they're not hearing. Why is this?

  • They may be focusing so carefully on their own part that everything else is shunted to the very edge of their attention. Another, involuntary, version of this is when a dose of adrenaline induces tunnel hearing
  • They may have got so used to how the ensemble sounds that they have ceased to notice things that could be improved. Persistent tuning or synchronisation errors are often in this category. Combine these first two experiences, and you start to grow some flaming pink hippos
  • They may not have the perceptual categories to identify an issue, or their scale of perception is not sufficiently fine-grained to make the distinction.

Am I Musical?

question markThe term 'musical' is one that puzzles me greatly. You might think that someone in my line of work would know what it means, but in fact I see it being used in multiple different ways. Some of these I find at least moderately problematic, especially when they get muddled up with other uses.

(Indeed, when I was involved in writing course documentation for degrees in performance and composition, we avoided the word 'musicality' in favour of 'musicianship' for precisely this reason. There's enough anxiety around assessment criteria without loading the terms.)

The term gets used in (at least) three different ways.

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