Continuing the Journey with Bristol A Cappella

Warm-up pic with hats and coatsWarm-up pic with hats and coats

After my visit to Signature last week, I took the train across to Bristol for another session with my friends at Bristol A Cappella on the Sunday. They had spent the Saturday working with performance coach Sandra Lea-Riley, so I came prepared to spend at least some of the time helping them process and consolidate what they had covered with a coach they had just worked with for the first time. It’s great to get input from different people, but it’s important that we don’t stand in each other’s light.

Sandra had done a great job with them – really transformed their levels of individual expressiveness – and we had some useful discussions reflecting on how she had achieved it, and how they could continue to develop these skills and transfer them into the rest of the repertoire. She had also identified a need to develop their techniques of articulation/enunciation, which chimed with their feedback from the Nailsea Festival in the autumn, and so helping with that became my primary task for the day.

Developing New Music with Signature

Name that tune...Name that tune...

Saturday was the second of a series of visits to Signature Singers to work with them on a new arrangement they are preparing for LABBS Convention in October. Last time I saw them, they had only just wrapped themselves round the notes and words, so we were doing deep groundwork, building the vocal and musical foundations for the song to be built on.

Two months on, and things were, unsurprisingly, much more developed. We still had a little undergrowth clearing to do in places, especially coordinating parts at structural boundaries and tempo changes. But in general we were getting much more into the expressive detail.

Gesture is a well-documented rehearsal technique to help singers feel musical shape, for purposes of both accuracy and expression. (Ramona Wis, for instance, wrote a splendid PhD dissertation on this, using Lakoff and Johnsons’ theory of metaphor.) It has all kinds of benefits – helping the singers get inside the musical effects, helping them coordinate to each other, allowing the coach to identify who needs extra help to find their way into it.

Rehearsal Vocabulary: To Try or Not to Try?

In the imperfect and work-in-progress world of the choral rehearsal, people spend much of their time trying to do things. That is a given. But it is worth reflecting on how, as directors, we use the word ‘try’ when giving our instructions. There are certain circumstances where it is a genuinely helpful word to use, and others where it is actively counter-productive.

I’m writing about this because, as is so often in the life of a coach, giving someone some advice about this has got me self-monitoring avidly to see if I am actually doing what I suggested he did!

The thing about the word ‘try’ is that it gives permission to fail. Once you have lived with that thought a while, you find that the things you ask singers to do in rehearsal fall quite neatly into those where it helps to gives that permission, and those where it doesn’t.

On Doubling 3rds

doubled3rdIf you were brought up in a classical harmonic world, you will have been taught that, whilst you may double a minor third, you should never double a major 3rd. Then you go out into the world of real music and meet doubled major 3rds in repertoire by composers you were led to believe knew what they were doing. The story kind of changes then: well, yes you can double major 3rds if you really have to, but we don’t really want you to.

It feels confusingly like doubling 3rds is one of those adult activities surrounded by double standards, like drinking or sex. Grown ups can do it, but the circumstances in which it’s okay are shrouded in mystery, and children are encouraged not even to think about it. It’s no wonder we all go off the rails in our teens, as we try to figure out how we can do these strange adult things in the absence of a clear understanding of the rules.

Coaching The Venus Effect

VenusEffectMy last coaching commitment before fleeing the country at the end of November was a coaching session with The Venus Effect. I didn’t have time to blog about it at the time, so this post doubles as a coaching report and a test of the comprehensibility of my notes made in haste at the time.

We had talked at the European Barbershop Convention in October about working together, and I was eager to start before my big trip as there were some specific techniques I wanted to share that were the kinds of things that yield results by regular use. So the earlier we got them into their practice routines, the better.

Welcome to 2018

Christmas Day selfieChristmas Day selfieHello Everyone!* Back again, did I miss anything?

Those of you who were in touch personally during the autumn will know that my absence during December was because Jonathan and I spent the month travelling round Australia. The reason I didn’t announce it here was because putting it on a public site that also displays my postal address feels a bit too much like saying, ‘Hey, good moment for burglars,’ so I choose not to differentiate in my blog between travelling unavailability and other-project-busy-ness.

Constructing the Identity of a Feminist Musicologist: Mainstream or Margins?

I won’t be posting during December, so I’ll leave you with a longer piece to be getting on with. This was my keynote address at the Musique et Genre conference in Paris in December 2015.

Wishing you all a vibrantly feminist holiday season, and see you in the New Year


Individuals construct their sense of self through autobiography. We each maintain an internal narrative, using the discourses our culture provides, to make sense of our experiences and thus understand who we are, what we have done, and what we might yet do. We also do this in groups, where shared stories bind people together into cohorts. We tell the stories to newcomers to make them ‘one of us’. We re-tell the stories amongst ourselves to re-live shared experience, and update our understanding of what that experience means. In academia, we call this process ‘literature review’. We create our identities as scholars through the search terms we choose to build our bibliographies.

In Praise of Imperfection

A couple of situations during my workshops at the Holland Harmony education weekend back in September got me reflecting again on our relationship as musicians with error. It’s not just that making mistakes is part of the human condition, so learning to cope with and recover from them is an important part of our musical skillset. It’s that in some situations they have a positive value in their own right.

This first came up in my two workshops on coaching techniques. These were practical classes, with participants coaching a guest quartet leading to discussion points about ways to maximise the effectiveness of the process. The first group was working with a quartet put together for the occasion from the halves of two other quartets, while the second had the current Holland Harmony gold medal quartet, LinQ.

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