January 2014

LABBS Directors: Show and Tell

Action shot from the coaching sessionAction shot from the coaching session

Sunday saw the second of the days I have led for the chorus directors of the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers. Like last year's, we had around 90 delegates, but this year we had expanded the team of facilitators and presenters to make it even more of an extravaganza. The thinking behind this is that one of the primary challenges in developing this programme is giving the membership access to the wonderful resource of each other's experience, while still giving everyone the chance to feel like a delegate who is being educated and not only a presenter who is helping others.

The session that was the most rewarding from my perspective was also one of the shortest (this wasn't the reason!). We had billed it as 'show and tell', as it show-cased the association's most successful director, Sally McLean who directed the assembled delegates while I gave a commentary highlighting aspects of her technique to note.

Obsessive Coaching Session

Friday night saw a visit from Obsession! quartet from Bristol for a coaching session on developing their unit sound. The have the interesting challenge of combining two English-speaking singers with two whose first language is Spanish. This on the face of it presents all kinds of technical obstacles (vowel-matching, and the like) and psychological obstacles (anxiety about ‘getting it right’ in your second language).

We had a productive evening cutting through all that by considering not how the Spanish speakers could get to sound more like the first-language English speakers, but instead how all four of them could sound more like the accent the quartet needed to sing in. For no four people produce their voices exactly alike, and even those who have a strong agreement on regional rendition of particular vowels, sung English usually aims to move away from regional specificities to a national or international genre norm.

On Expanding Your Boundaries


In my recent post on goal-setting for the year, I mentioned 'doing things that expand my boundaries'. This is one of those ideas that is very clear in my mind, but turns out to be quite abstract when I try to articulate it. It is related to going out of your comfort zone, or that wonderful notion developed in Saki's short story of an 'unrest cure'.

The point is to extend oneself - in both the sense of to make an effort and to enlarge. The idea emerged over some years from observing the contraction of older relatives - how as they reduced their spheres of activity, capacities and interests reduced too. Of course the slowing with age is ultimately inevitable, but it seemed to me that the quality of lived experience is different when people choose to live safely within their limits all the time as opposed to when they challenge those limits periodically.

On Editorial Oppression

Another page from my childhood repertoireAnother page from my childhood repertoireWhen I was looking back at my childhood piano music last month, it wasn’t just the admonitory annotations that leapt out at me. I also found myself quite boggled to see quite how much editorial stuff had been added to the older pieces. Articulation, phrasing, dynamics, all kinds of stuff in profusion. I had forgotten that music used to look like this.

And you know what? I felt really boxed in by all those extraneous instructions. It was almost hard to read the notes for all the lines and dots and other paramusical paraphernalia. I hadn’t noticed how accustomed I have become to modern editorial habits that aim to strip out all the accretions of time and get back as close as possible to the text the composer produced (and to provide footnotes to tell you where the editor is having to make a guess).

That Day We Sang

Last Thursday I went to see Victoria Wood’s That Day We Sang at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. I didn’t go with the idea that I would come back with ideas to blog about - the plan was merely to have a very nice time. That main mission was accomplished, but we had the bonus of a question-answer session with the cast after the show which brought up two things that piqued my interest beyond the pleasure of a beautifully-written and beautifully-performed show.

On Goal-Setting

So this post comes a little late to be any real use to people setting goals for 2014. But it emerged from my own process of goal-setting, and it's kind of in the nature of reflecting on things that you have to do the things before you can reflect on them. These thoughts build on my musings about work-life balance from last March, but also emerge from the realisation that this summer it will be five years since I turned freelance.

One of the things that I was interested in when I left full-time employment in higher education was developing a new relationship with time. I had spent every year except one since the age of 5 governed by the academic calendar, and the patterns of dash-and-crash that it seemed to encourage. What has developed in tandem with this is a new relationship with a sense of duty.

Singling-Out 2: Adrenaline Control

See main post for enlarged image...See main post for enlarged image...

I wrote back before Christmas about the principle of singling out individuals in rehearsal - when and how it is useful, when and how it may be counter-productive. As I worked through the different scenarios and examples it got me reflecting on, I realised I was mapping the focus on individuals vs group onto the Yerkes-Dodson curve that charts arousal and performance level.

A focus on individuals makes everybody feel slightly less psychologically safe - not just the people singled out, but everyone else too as they become more aware that they too are individually visible. This results in an increased level of arousal.

If the choir is being a bit dozy or passive, then this is exactly what you need: a bit more alertness and focus in the brain, a bit more energy and readiness-for-action in the body. If the choir is anxious or floundering, though, this is the last thing you need, as adding adrenaline to an over-stressed performance just makes it worse.

Performing in Anticipation

There’s a Jonathan Coe novel in which a character says something like, ‘I shall enjoy looking forward to that’.* The main protagonist is struck by the multiple layers of anticipation built into the statement - taking pleasure in anticipating the pleasure of anticipating something. This quote came to mind as I was noting the various types of future-orientation discussed at Karen O’Connor’s Performing On Your Mind workshop back in November.

The first was the envisioning process entailed in the general coaching strategy, asking performers to describe the kind of performance they would like to give. I have already discussed how this serves to focus attention on solutions rather than problems, but it’s interesting to note that it thereby gets the performer to construct an imagined future self who is fulfilling their present ambitions.

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