Developing Section Leaders

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Since I had to travel down to Plymouth the day before my coaching day with Brunel Harmony, their director Delyth Knight had a brainwave about how to use the evening before. Her family are involved in the musical leadership of several choruses in the area, so she felt it would be a good opportunity to offer a training session to section leaders/music team members from several of them together.

Interestingly, I have been toying with offering training for music teams as a specific service for a while, as it strikes me as a way to support the ensemble’s development in a way that could add significant value relative to the time spent. And, whilst there are plenty of training opportunities to develop the musical and vocal skills these roles need, there is relatively little support for how to develop the coaching and mentoring skills they often entail.

Then, while I was toying with these ideas, two directors got in touch independently to ask about them. It is starting to look like an idea whose time has come.

Anyway, the session Delyth set up included some members of the music teams of three of the four choruses invited (the fourth was performing that night), and their interactions demonstrated how similar the experiences, and thus the needs, are. At the same time, the opportunity to compare notes about different ways to tackle common problems (and finding out which problems are indeed common) proved a useful way to get perspective on their own experiences, even before we added in any training content.

All the choruses involved in the session have well-developed job descriptions for their team roles, so we were starting from a position of everyone knowing their basic remits. We could thus focus in on those areas where they might want to feel more confident and/or effective. These were often quite complex questions about the interface between musical goals and the set of individuals they were each working with to achieve them. How do I get my section members to retain what they’ve learned? How can I get them to meet my expectations for individual practice time, and how do I tackle them if/when they don’t? How can I be sure that what I thought I heard is actually what happened? How do I tell someone who has been doing this for years what to do?

My approach to dealing with these was to introduce some structures to use as basic building blocks of the coaching/rehearsing relationship. The first was the feedback protocol for coaching I wrote about earlier this year, and the second is Intervention and Enforcement Cycles that I have on my to-do list to blog about, but haven’t yet.* After I had introduced each, we did some role play using them, taking it in turns to sing (either as a quartet, or as a unison section) and to coach using the rubrics.

The combination of structure and role-play was what made this effective. Actually, simply having feedback on the detail of your coaching is something that you very rarely get; the nitty-gritty of ‘this you did well; that opportunity you missed; here is an alternative way to achieve your aims more efficiently,’ is the information you need to work on your technique. And then doing it in the context of a clear protocol provides the rationale for the feedback. I’m telling you keeping doing this, or change that, because of what the method is designed to achieve. Working through the detail together, both the doing and the observing, gives participants insight into both their own skills and how the structures work. And we could periodically refer back to our initial set of questions to clarify how they were set up to help avert, diffuse or ameliorate the practical problems they were grappling with in their own groups.

Things that emerged from these exercises included:

  • It is important that compliments are specific because the vaguer they are they less likely they are to be true. To say ‘very good’ to a rendition that is quite average for the group is either a lie, or setting very low expectations. But there will be something they genuinely are doing well: ‘Nicely matched oo vowels’ would have been a very valid compliment at the moment we discovered this.
  • Sometimes you are listening for certain things, and the group meets all your expectations, and you may feel stumped as to what to ask them to do next to improve it. Mentally comparing them to a top-notch ensemble will help bring to mind what else it is possible to ask for - and this is how a group raises its expectations. In our example, notes and tuning were all free from error, and after imagining a champion quartet singing the same passage, our coach asked for more expressive singing.
  • Brevity is good. Often the person coaching would come out with a very simple, direct statement that was perfect for the situation, but would then worry that they needed to explain themselves, and would keep talking when the ensemble could have been singing. Once you’ve said, for example, ‘I’d like a brighter tone please,’ there’s nothing else you need to do; it’s now the singers’ turn.
  • In the first instance, don’t fret too much about prioritising, just focus on making useful interventions. So long as you are succeeding in improving the performance, you are heading in the right direction. Arguably, it’s the director’s job to set priorities, and in the absence of a specific goal beyond ‘help your section sing this better’ anything that strikes you as needing attention probably does need attention.

*I am aware that this is not entirely helpful for readers, but since I generally want to post write-ups of specific events in a reasonably timely matter, I’m not going to have space in the publication schedule to slot those in immediately, and so you’ll have to make do for now with an apology. Or, I suppose, book me for training on them...

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