Coaching with The Rhubarbs

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Classic warm-up pic, this one with natural lightClassic warm-up pic, this one with natural light

The weekend saw me heading off to Germany to work with barbershoppers in Bonn. The plan had been to spend Saturday afternoon with quartet Note-4-Note and Sunday with their chorus, The Rhubarbs, but the winter’s cold viruses had other ideas, and so I ended up with rather more time for sight-seeing time than usual. The Drachenfels makes a wonderful afternoon out, but it was still a pity to miss working with the quartet.

Looking back on the chorus day on Sunday, I am quite astonished at how productive it was. We visited areas including vocal skills, aural skills, story-telling/characterisation, directing skills and stage-craft, as well as the regular problem-solving of details in the repertoire that a coaching session would usually cover. Oh, and re-stacking the chorus by voice timbre.

I’m sure one reason we could work so efficiently was because I’d had a good deal of time on the Saturday with co-directors Mareike and Bettina, and we’d talked in some depth about their plans for the chorus and its current needs whilst preparing for the BinG! Convention in April.

Another was that strange holistic alchemy that sometimes allows you to get three things done with one technique. Bubbling is always pretty good for this. I picked it as a priority exercise early on as its benefits for aiding a deep-seated breath and a richer resonance would come in useful all day. But as usual it also required everyone to listen much more attentively, whilst also giving the directors lots of feedback about the flow of their conducting.

Even better was working with swing by adding clicks on the backbeat. This swiftly achieved its primary purpose of clarifying the rhythmic feel of their contest uptune, but in the process delivered far far more. The musical characterisation helped us explore the persona of the song – picking up the music’s cues about where and when it was set to give us narrative framework within which to make sense of the story as told in the lyrics. This is a chorus with a real culture of story-telling in song, and they were quick to make the most of the opportunities that opened up.

But the magic didn’t stop there. One of Mareike’s development goals as a director is reduce the size of her physical movements, and she found approaching that through the filter of character gave her a more positively artistic way to go about this than merely exerting discipline over her limbs. Which any director who has been through this process (i.e. most of us) will tell you is extraordinarily hard work, and almost impossible to monitor while you’re paying attention to the voices.

By motivating her body language through character and its rhythmic expression in backbeat, Mareike was able not only to calm her gestures down, but also to find a new level of expressive contact with the chorus. All the musical nuances she had been feeling could now show through now they were no longer being overshadowed by her desire to show everything to the chorus. They in turn had space to contribute much more individually to the story-telling, which was a direct and affirming reward for Mareike.

Both the expressive generosity the chorus brought to their singing and the openness to changing how they did things rely on a culture of trust. This is clearly something that the chorus has already nurtured for some time. But it occurred to me on the way home that some of the activities we did for musical reasons could have helped affirm that culture in the context of their first experience with a new coach.

The power of duetting, as I never tire of asserting, is in its power to develop listening skills. But there is a social as well as musical power involved in the act of listening. By systematically duetting all combinations of parts, you create a very equal set of relationships within the singers: all have paid attention to each other’s singing, and all have been listened to carefully in turn. I suspect this bonding power is amplified when they are invited to voice their perceptions in whichever language is most comfortable. It doesn’t matter whether I understand the comments, what matters is that the chorus are helping each other grow.

The process of sorting all the voices into a continuum from the most trumpet-like to the most flute-like is also – in the way I like to do it – a highly participative activity. From an acoustic perspective, you can have your visiting coach classify everyone for you and the stacking will work. But it’s a much more bonding experience if everybody is involved in the decision-making process. Everyone ends up feeling they know and understand each other better as a result.

(Also, from a practical level, the chorus needs to have the skills to slot in those struck down by colds, and, in due course new chorus members.)

During our final debrief, Bettina made a perceptive comment about how a specific way in which an external coach helps the director. By taking the responsibility for diagnosing rehearsal needs and proposing solutions, I gave her the cognitive space to focus on the effect her directing gestures were having on the sound.

It occurred to me afterwards that I use this principle in rehearsal when I use activities such as duetting, or inviting chorus members out to listen and comment. When someone else is going to be giving the feedback, it both allows and requires me to focus on delivering rather than developing the musical product. Not trying to do myself out of a job, you understand, just noting that there are ways to get this amenity when I’m not there with you.

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