July 2019

Winchester A Cappella Coaching Day

Traditional warm-up shotTraditional warm-up shotI spent Saturday working with Winchester A Cappella chorus on the music they will be taking to the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers Convention in the autumn. The chorus welcomed a new director last year after a period of some upheaval, and now that the working relationships are getting nicely settled in they were ready for some external input.

The ballad they are learning is one I arranged for a quartet back in 2011 without intending it for barbershop contest use, but the way that the Barbershop Harmony Society has deliberately relaxed its approach to judging style in order to encourage new repertoire in the last 6 years or so has moved it from the category of ‘not really quite barbershoppy enough’ to ‘actually, this will be fine’. So it will unexpectedly bump up my tally of contest premieres come October.

Building the Musical Toolkit with the Belles

bellesjul19I spent last Saturday with my friends at the Belles of Three Spires. On the face of it, we were working on the two songs they will be taking to LABBS Convention in October, but the more fundamental remit I had been given was to help their director Lucy develop the collection of musical concepts she uses with the chorus. It’s all very well feeling that the music should go a certain way, she pointed out, or even being advised to shape it like that, but she wants to know why.

In giving me this remit, she framed the goal explicitly in terms of extending her own skill set as director; if the chorus also understood the concepts, that’s great, but the main point was to leave her with ideas she could use to inform her musical decisions and judgements. As a result I found myself using more technical terms than I usually might, which was an interesting experience to come so soon after my post about rehearsal/coaching lexicons and my relationship with technical language.

Director Coaching with Junction 14

Adjusting the conducting plane:: "Hold your plate of music low enough that you can pile it high and still see over the profiteroles"Adjusting the conducting plane:: "Hold your plate of music low enough that you can pile it high and still see over the profiteroles"Thursday evening took me down to Milton Keynes to work with the directing team of Junction 14 chorus. Both MD Hannah and her assistant Debbie have been regular participants in LABBS director training events, but they were after the extra depth and personalisation you get from being coached as a director along with the singers you work with regularly. This bring not only more one-to-one time, but the chance to enrol the chorus into the process of developing their directors.

For the truism that what a director does is directly mirrored by the chorus is balanced by a less often articulated truth that much of what a director habitually does is shaped by their singers. There are all kinds of interesting co-dependencies between a conductor and their ensemble, some of which are really helpful, others counter-productive. You can re-set the latter more readily by working with both ends of the relationship at the same time.

Developing Our Lexicon

One segment of our working brain-dumpOne segment of our working brain-dumpToday’s title is a direct quote from the inimitable Mo Field, who as Guest Educator at the LABBS Directors Weekend last summer, invited the assembled chorus directors to consider the kinds of vocabulary and turns of phrase they habitually use with their singers. What kind of values do they encode? What underlying messages do they give about what you care about?

Re-reading Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code earlier this year gave a nice cross-reference to his analysis of successful coaches. Distinctive and pithy catch-phrases that capture central principles of praxis are one of the characteristic behaviours that he documents.

Mo Field on the Needs of an Audience

One of the many things that ended up in my notebook under the heading ‘To think about later’ from LABBS Harmony College back in April was something guest educator Mo Field said about what an audience is looking for in performers. It now appears to be later, and my brain is ready to think about it.

In summary, the three things she listed were:

1. Is this competent? (Can they trust your skill-set?)
2. Can they believe you? (Are you saying something that matters to you?)
3. Is it relatable? (Are you saying anything that matters to them?)

The first thing to note is that these are both sequential and hierarchical. Until the listener is reassured that they’re safe in your hands from the perspective of your capacity to operate your instrument/ensemble, they’re not going to have any attention to give to the content of what you do. Assuming you are indeed competent, they’ll move on pretty much immediately to engage with your content.

Practice Gadgets as Feedback Tools

The term ‘practice gadget’ is one coined by Daniel Coyle to refer to tactics people use to selectively increase the challenge of what they are working on. The archetypal example would be the way that the popular game of futsal trained up a generation of Brazilian football players, documented in his first book. Working on a smaller scale than soccer, and using a ball with significantly less bounce, futsal makes players work harder at ball-handling and team interaction, leading to a level of virtuosity that the larger, outdoor version of the game rarely fosters.

There is another dimension to the practice gadgets though, not just the amplification of challenge: they provide a feedback-rich experience. The physical interface with the activity talks back to you with a constant stream of information about how you’re getting on.

The Path Through the Trees

Today I am going to mull on an intriguing bit of advice Mo Field offered at LABBS Harmony College in April. She suggested that chorus directors show their singers ‘the path through the trees’. By this she meant that instead of focusing on the percussive events (the trees), we should give attention to the overall line of the music.

Now, traditional conducting technique is all about clarity - the director’s primary task is to keep everyone unambiguously together. Leonard Bernstein talked about this role as ‘glorified traffic cop’; I have been known to refer to it as the ‘sheepdog function’. On the face of it Mo’s advice would seem to directly contradict this received wisdom.

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