Book Review: Harmony From the Inside Out

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harmonybookI picked up this book while I was out in Philadelphia for the Barbershop Harmony Society’s International Convention, having heard several people talk about it. Its author, Jan Carley, sings with the Lions Gate Chorus in Vancouver and also works as a professional life coach, and the purpose of the book is primarily to apply the principles of life-coaching to working with barbershop choruses. She has had some significant successes in helping Sweet Adelines choruses (most especially the Lions Gate Chorus) enjoy rapid increases in both performance level and morale, and this book outlines her approach.

The conceptual basis of the book is strongly rooted in the self-help and coaching literature, so if you read a lot of this you may find much of the material familiar. She draws heavily on The Inner Game of Music, for instance, and Zander & Zander’s Art of Possibility. There’s also a fair dollop of neuro-linguistic programming lurking under the surface, although that influence seems to be less direct.

You could interpret this as saying the book not being especially original – or you could see it as drawing on a strong and well-developed heritage. The sources she uses are intelligent and wise, and she brings them into an effective synthesis illustrated by real-life stories to show how they work in practice. It’s good advice, and you can see how choruses flourish under her care.

One thing I particularly liked is the way she outlines the ‘coaching perspective’ as being entirely client-focused. The process is not about the coach; their function is exclusively to facilitate the goals of the people they help. This very explicit philosophical position clearly comes from her professional life as a coach, and is a useful contribution to the discourses of barbershop performance coaching. People usually become barbershop coaches because they have vocal, musical or performance skills to share, and don’t necessarily have a clear sense of method for doing so when they start out.

Another insightful moment was when she moved on from the simple Inner Game act of silencing your inner critic to turning that inner critic into your best ally. Trusting that the internal voice that always tells you where you’re going wrong actually loves you and wants the best for you takes a big emotional leap, but promises rewards akin to those of re-building a healthy relationship with your parents as an adult after a stormy adolescence.

There are also details I might contest. (But this doesn’t harm the reading experience of course – you can learn a lot by saying ‘yes, but…’ as you read.) For instance, she conflates the sense of unselfconsciousness you get in peak experiences when you are fully wrapped up what you are doing, with the sense of ‘being in the moment’ you get from meditative practice, and, whilst they are both healthy and desirable states, I’m not convinced they’re the same. The essential quality of challenge that generates the flow state, and the sense of emerging as a more complex person than you went in, seem to me fundamentally different from the mental and emotional calm promoted by her grounding and centering exercises. The exercises are good ones, but their usefulness is in preparing people to enter into a flow state, which has its own, qualitatively different, dynamic.

As a book, it wasn’t entirely sure if it was aiming itself at a primarily barbershop audience or a general readership. Most of the real-life stories came from the barbershop world (and indeed, from the Lions Gate Chorus) which pointed to a specialist focus, but the language often used the euphemisms that barbershop employs when it’s trying to position itself as ‘mainstream’. My guess is that she (and her publishers!) didn’t want to ghettoize the book to a single readership, but the examples are so bound up with the emotional dynamics of the Sweet Adelines performance and contest scene that I’m not sure how it would work for someone who didn’t already care about that.

But I bought it a barbershop event, and it speaks well to that constituency. It’s written in a spirit of generosity and goodwill such that whichever bits you find useful or want to debate, you’re going to come away from reading it in a better state to make good music than you went in.

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