Choral

My Theory of Affection

When musicians see the phrase ‘theory of affection’ their thoughts turn to 17th-century concepts of mimesis and the portrayal of emotion in music. But, interesting as that is, my purpose today is wider than the period-specific world of Affektenlehre, concerning instead the general human question of what makes us feel fondness.

It’s something I’ve thought about blogging on for many years, but there was always something that seemed more of the moment. I have been piqued into at last by reading something that for a moment looked like it was going to articulate my personal theory in more formal terms, but which in fact turned out to be a near miss.

Chip and Dan Heath report on the work of Harry T. Reis, a social psychologist who aspired to create a universal theory of relationships. He placed responsiveness at the heart of what creates interpersonal bonds, and outlined three ways in which this works:

The Quality Director

One of the great rewards, as I have remarked before, of working with amateur musicians is that you get to meet and learn from professionals in all kinds of other arenas. I had one such learning experience during my trip to Germany in April, when I had the opportunity to chat at some length with Stef Schmidt, who works, between her intensive bouts of barbershopping, as the director for quality in a manufacturing company.

She was very interesting on the subject of how to engage people in solving existing problems, and, more importantly, in getting them to help prevent future problems before they happen. I immediately wanted to interrogate her on how she uses these skills in her rehearsal processes, and this post is my opportunity to reflect on the notes I took after our conversation.

Bucket-list breathing

This is a dual purpose post. Its first aim is to fulfil a request to explain an approach to breathing taught by Jim Henry at the LABBS Directors Weekend 3 years ago for someone who wasn’t at it. Its second is to reflect on my experience teaching that approach to others, from which I have drawn some wider conclusions about teaching.

So, first to the method. Dr Jim called this 1-2-3 breathing, as it focuses your attention to breathing in 3 stages. First, you breathe in down to the bottom of your lungs, letting your waist and lower ribs expand (1), then to the middle of your chest allowing your ribs and mid-back widen (2), then finally top up beneath your breast-bone (3). So far, so good, you think, this will get a nice full, deep breath and prevent clavicular breathing.

The bit I particularly love about this approach, though, comes next: you let the air out (whether breathing or singing) in the same order it came in. So you use the air at the bottom of your lungs first, squeezing your waist in (1), then your mid-chest, allowing your ribs to contract (2), and then use the top-up under the breast-bone last (3). This guarantees that you keep your support in play right to the end of the breath, and prevents that visible deflation of posture you sometimes see towards the ends of phrases.

On Asking Questions in Rehearsal

At last year’s A Cappella Spring Fest I ran a session for choir members about how to get the most out of rehearsals. It was partly about how to prepare for and review rehearsals in between to consolidate, but also about things you can do during the rehearsal itself. One specific item we covered was about asking questions in rehearsal – when and how to do it. I’m coming back to write about this now because I’ve had several conversations about it recently and so it seems a good moment to share those discussions.

From a director’s perspective, questions from choir members are a mixed blessing. On one hand they give you really clear information about the singers’ needs, and how the whole process is being experienced from within the ensemble. This is information we want and need. On the other hand, they slow the rehearsal down by increasing the talk:music ratio, and their timing often distracts the whole choir from the rehearsal focus of the moment.

So, the question is: how do we gather that vital information without breaking the flow of the rehearsal?

Reflections from the Recording Studio

I spent all day Easter Saturday with groups of singers in a small recording studio. This was part of a hymn project I’ve been helping a midlands-based church community with for a few months. Hitherto my involvement has been with the full choir, working on vocal techniques and choral craft; this was the first time I’d actually been in the studio with them.

Most of my previous recording experience has been as a singer (or occasionally in a consultant’s role as arranger), so I’m finding it interesting to reflect on how the role of conductor and coach plays out in this context. My previous recording experience has also been with full musical textures and relatively long arcs of musical time, whereas the weekend’s procedure was working with individual sections (or in some cases, half a section at a time), and taking the music in 8- or 16-bar units.

Bright Spots Coaching

One of the many useful bits of advice in Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch was, to use their terminology, ‘find the bright spots’. Rather than focusing on the problem we need to solve, they suggest, it can be much more effective to identify where things are going well and replicate that behaviour.

It is a simple idea, and thus easy to implement immediately, but it also has depth to it – the more you think about it, the more it offers. Which is why I’m writing about it – to tease out some of its ramifications, and to work out how they can help us in the choral rehearsal.

The morning after I read this bit of the book, I saw Mareike Buck use the technique beautifully in her warm-up with The Rhubarbs in Bonn. She remarked that one particular chorus member was using a gestural technique they were clearly familiar with to aid vocal production. That person looked pleased to have the compliment, and everyone else joined in the gesture.

Switch: Chip and Dan Heath on Behavioural Change

SwitchSwitch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard is a book I picked up on impulse when I was buying another book by the same authors recommended by a friend. I ended up reading this one first for the simple reason it was a bit smaller and lighter and would fit in my handbag on a trip I took just after it arrived.

I’ve read and enjoyed (and indeed blogged about) ideas by Chip and Dan Heath before, and this book is similarly helpful, practical and cheerfully written. Their strength is in synthesis – bringing together ideas from other authors and presenting them in ways that are memorable and usable. So, the cast of sources they cite includes names already familiar to regular readers here, such as Kotter and Dweck, but I’d say the Heaths still add value in the clarity with which they put together their advice.

It’s almost as if they’ve read their own previous work on what makes ideas sticky.

How Conductors Create Incompetence in their Singers

Last autumn I had the opportunity to read a fascinating dissertation on choral singing in Oxford colleges by Emma Hall. (She has since blogged about some of her conclusions here.) It was a rich and nuanced piece of work, with lots to teach us, and there was one finding that really caught my attention for its implications for all choral practitioners.

This was the dynamic whereby conductors tend to correct sopranos more often than the other parts, giving both the sopranos themselves and the rest of the choir the impression that they need more correction, that they make more mistakes, thus both drawing on and reinforcing the stereotype of sopranos as the least competent voice part.

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