Team-coaching with Fascinating Rhythm

Riser-top view of the team in actionRiser-top view of the team in actionRegular readers will know by now that Fascinating Rhythm have been leading the way amongst British barbershop choruses by bringing newly commissioned music to the contest stage every year since 2015. Last weekend was their annual retreat at which they got their teeth into their 5th consecutive new package, and for the first time they decided to invite me to coach for a day alongside their regular coach Sally McLean rather than bring us in separately as they have hitherto.

I was going to say that fortunately their regular coach and their regular arranger have very compatible approaches to music and performance, but that makes it sound like it’s luck or coincidence. Thinking about it, though, it would be more surprising if they chose people to work with regularly who had incongruent artistic attitudes.

Semiotic Theory and the Futility of Bowdlerising Lyrics

A decade ago I was alert enough to the portrayal of race in music to be squeamish about a quartet of white women taking on the character of a mixed-race prostitute in song. Looking back, I take my past self’s points about the mitigating European context of both the version of the song the quartet were responding to and their audience’s frame of reference. But I also note it’s been a good long time since I withdrew that particular chart from circulation.

Bowdlerising the lyrics was not enough to ‘rescue’ that song, and today’s task is to articulate why that is so often the case. Much of the theoretical groundwork for this has appeared in past blog posts, but sometimes it’s useful to draw ideas together to shed light on continuing debates about how to handle songs which encode values we may no longer wish to align ourselves with.

Aurora Revisited

We forgot to take a selfie so Helen spliced us together afterwards...We forgot to take a selfie so Helen spliced us together afterwards...Last Sunday afternoon brought Aurora quartet back for more coaching, to follow up the session we had back in March. They had clearly been working diligently since last time there were here, and it was most cheering to be able to tell them how readily apparent the improvement was to someone who hadn’t heard them in the interim.

Of course one always intends for rehearsals to be making things better, but when you are in the thick of it you can’t always tell whether your incremental changes are adding up. So it's useful to hear from someone who only hears you intermittently.

They came in with a helpfully specific list of things they wanted help with - pacing the intro to one song, trouble-shooting some unusual chords in another – which, almost more than the greater consistency of sound, signalled that they are now taking more control over their development.

Building the Arc with Bristol A Cappella

The warm-up is going swimmingly...The warm-up is going swimmingly...On Saturday I went down to help Bristol A Cappella with their preparation for the mixed chorus context at the British Association of Barbershop Singers Convention later this month. They were going to be working with Performance specialist Kirsty Williams on Sunday, so I could focus on musical and vocal issues, knowing that she would bring their focus back out onto their audience the next day.

(Of course I find it hard to talk about an interesting chord without considering what it will do to a listener, and there were places where choreography could conveniently be leveraged to help vocal technique. But the generalisation stands that there were things I could safely put to one side knowing that Kirsty would have them in her sights the next day.)

LABBS Harmony College 2019

Arty long-shot of our central themeArty long-shot of our central themeEvery so often, the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers replaces its usual programme of regional education days and training events for chorus directors and quartets with a single grand shindig. The last Harmony College took place in 2016, to celebrate the organisation’s 40th birthday, and it was so well received that it was decided to programme them into the events cycle every three years.

Hence, 330 of us – mostly but not exclusively LABBS members – gathered together at Nottingham University last weekend. This was a significantly larger number than three years ago (to the extent that the organisation kept having to go back to the university to get more bedrooms allocated), so I don’t see Harmony College losing its place in the cycle any time soon.

The Robot/Human Dialectic

There’s an exercise I like to do with ensembles in which they toggle between singing as if they were a robot and as if they were a human being. It’s interesting because you think before you start that it’s primarily about expressiveness – turning both vocal and facial empathy for the music on and off. Which it is, but it also turns out to be about technical control. The robot mode typically displays not only a more angular rather than flowing sense of shape, but also much cleaner synchronisation of rhythm and word sounds. You lose something by turning off your humanity, but you gain something too.

I recently had a conversation with an individual singer about managing his relationship with these two states. He generally gives his primary focus to accuracy (an attitude that you have to like), but feels this can result in a robotic delivery: ‘I don’t think I know how to sing a melody like a Lead, while still doing all the stuff on placement, timing etc,’ he said.

Resistance is Useful

I have written before about Mark Forster’s helpful approaches to overcoming the struggles that lie at the heart of procrastination. Indeed, when I went back to see what I said last time I reflected on them I found quite a few of the ideas I thought I had just had when mulling over this post. Ahem.

Anyway, his key point bears repeating: that it’s rarely the outer game of time-management that is the problem, but the inner game of just not wanting to get on with that right now. Or as he calls it, resistance.

The particularly astute bit of his analysis is that the strength of your resistance is often directly proportional to the importance of the task. Importance in this context is somewhat subjective – sometimes to do with scale (big jobs take a lot of oomph to start on because you know they’re going to take a lot effort to complete), sometimes with difficulty (it’s harder to get started when there are bits of the task you know you don’t yet know how to handle), and sometimes with emotional investment (if you care a lot about something you are tentative about screwing it up).

Atomic Quartet Coaching

AtomicI spent Monday afternoon until mid-afternoon on Tuesday with Atomic Quartet, who had come up from Cornwall for an intensive bout of coaching both as quartet and as individual singers. They had initially suggested doing PVIs (‘personal voice instruction’ for those unfamiliar with the acronym) on the Monday, followed by quartet coaching the next day, but I inflected this model into a more flexible approach that shifted between individual and ensemble work more fluidly.

I remembered the way that Rivka Golani taught viola at the Birmingham Conservatoire. All her students were entitled to a certain number of hours of one-to-one tuition as part of their course, but rather than seeing them one at a time, she used to have all of them together for one day a week, observing as she worked with each in turn. Her students spoke very positively of this experience, and I observed strong bonds of trust between them.

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