Coaching Coast to Coast
Coast to Coast, the national chorus of LABBS, invited me to coach them on Sunday as part of their retreat weekend. The chorus comprises singers from across the country, and meets once a month, usually on a Sunday. Many of its members sing with small choruses, and find that Coast to Coast offers them not only the chance to sing in a larger group, but provides a wider networking opportunity to exchange ideas and advice to take back to their home clubs.
The chorus had spent the Saturday on big-picture questions such as planning the group’s development and exploring their understanding of the music. Their new director, Linda Blackett, has identified as a medium-term goal to work on musicianship, and having the extra day together gave them the chance to do activities that focused on the skills of the singers and not just preparing for their next performance – a nice bit of work on production capacity, not just production.
My task on Sunday was more performance-focused, in that it was involved working on the songs they will be performing in a show at the LABBS Convention next month. But the musicianship theme continued – we found ourselves working things like duetting to enhance understanding of the relationship between parts, rhythmic frameworks, and connecting phrases together into longer musical ideas.
I think Linda’s agenda here is wise - and not just because enhanced musicianship always benefits a performing ensemble. The particular circumstances of this chorus mean that they will feel the benefit of this approach more than usual.
When a chorus meets once a week, there are certain demands on memory, but another rehearsal always comes along before people have had too much chance to forget what they’ve been working on. When a chorus meets one day a month, they get the benefit of a full day’s intensive rehearsal each time, but they have four times as long as usual to retain that benefit before their next meeting.
Now, the methods that barbershop choruses typically use to learn were devised for groups that meet weekly, and rely a lot on rote learning and kinaesthetic memory. They are good at locking down consistency in performance, but by the same token make changes to the performance relatively difficult to implement. When these methods are transposed to a group that meets less frequently, they are all having to work much harder to retain music by muscle memory as they don’t get a weekly refresh, so that it is commensurately harder to change the performance.
We’ve all experienced the ‘rubber band’ effect whereby you work on something to make a change, then put it back into context and it reverts to how you sang it before. The less frequently you rehearse, the more you notice when this happens, because you don’t have the option to say ‘Oh well, we’ll sort that out next week’.
Indeed, this also affected how I approached coaching the chorus. With a group that meets frequently, I would routinely expect to raise more possibilities during the day than we could get securely into the performance within the session. My goal is usually both to effect tangible changes to give a sense of achievement on the day and to give tasters of they kinds of things the group can continue to work on over the coming weeks. But with Coast to Coast’s next rehearsal a full month away, it was clearly more useful to work on fewer specific changes at greater length. Knowing that *this* is your chance to make a difference doesn't half focus the attention.
This national chorus nourishes groups across the country in all kinds of ways – from the cross-fertilisation of warm-up ideas to social camaraderie of knowing you belong to something bigger than your local group. But beyond the obvious ways it adds value, there are richer and more profound lessons being learned as the rehearsal patterns require its members to develop new relationships with the music they sing. And I think Linda’s musicianship agenda is well-placed to amplify and articulate this implicit learning.