Choral

Singing, Safety, and Double Glazing

This is possibly not the metaphor you were expecting, but bear with me, I have found it a useful one for thinking about our current choral predicament.

If you’ve seen windows being fitted, you’ll know that the frames are installed first, and then the double-glazed units are inserted, and wedged into place with a strip of rubber seal all round the edge. If you’ve ever had problems with your double glazing, you may have learned that the seal will keep most of the rain out, but is unlikely to (and indeed not intended to) keep it all out. Instead, the frames are designed to drain the water that gets in back outside. (If the installers drill the holes out on the wrong side, they drain into your house instead of outside; DAMHIK.)

Likewise, whilst the installers will squeeze mastic all round the join between frames and wall, this is also not intended to be the primary means to keep the water out. The structure should be designed so that rain doesn’t get in, and the mastic serves as draught-proofing and to repel any minor seepage.

Remote Rehearsing and Trust

When I asked the Telfordaires Music Team what we’d look back on this period and see as something we gained from it, our bass section leader Eddie identified increased levels of trust within the chorus. This not only warmed my heart, but offered some interesting thoughts to reflect on about the structure of activities and how they shape relationships within a group.

When he talked about trust, Eddie was thinking primarily about the way the practicalities of remote rehearsing mean people spend much more time singing to each other than singing together. It makes you feel more vulnerable to do this, but by the same token your fellow singers are moved to be more supportive in recognition of this. We do much of this in smaller groupings – sections, pairs/threes – so that it’s a more personal and private environment in which to put yourself on the line. This also allows reciprocity – if everyone is taking it in turn to do this, everyone is in the same boat.

Into the Wilderness

The choral world is currently processing the consensus that emerged last week that singing in groups is one of the highest risk activities for spreading Covid-19 and that we shouldn’t expect to restart rehearsals until there’s an effective vaccine.* There’s a fair bit of denial going on, and occasional anger (to be expected, as the first stages of grief), but we are collectively gradually moving on to ask: okay, so now what?

Before all this broke last week, I had scheduled a post on a thought experiment about what it would take to return to normal, but I deleted it as it was overtaken by events. I suppose it’s worth noting that the primary thing I was contemplating as a pre-requisite for a return to rehearsal – a robust contact-tracing regime – may still actually be fine for those countries like New Zealand and South Korea that have succeeded in getting their community transmission rates right down. But for those of us in the UK and US where not only are transmission rates still high, but there doesn’t appear to be much political will to reduce them, the advice that we shouldn’t revert to our beloved super-spreading habits until there’s a vaccine remains more realistic for now.

So, now we are staring the despair in the face, what do we do?

Soapbox: The Mute Button and the Abuse of Power

soapboxOne of the standard bits of etiquette in remote rehearsing, and indeed any other large-group gathering via video-conferencing platforms, is that you spend most of the time with most people’s microphones turned off. This way you can cough without the focus of the conversation highlighting your discomfort, and nobody else is distracted by the dogs barking from your next-door neighbour’s garden.

All good so far. But I have nonetheless felt uncomfortable when choral colleagues joke about how they wish they could have a ‘mute all’ button when they go back to normal rehearsals. Call me humourless, but aren’t you just saying by this that you run inefficient rehearsals that leave dead space for nattering? Or is it that you like to exert your leadership by fiat, rather than by consent? Either way, cutting across people to shut them up feels rude; if you wouldn’t go and stick a piece of masking tape over someone’s mouth mid-sentence in real life, then you wouldn’t want to slam on a 'mute all' button online.

Remote Rehearsing: Some Specifics

So I thought I had probably gone on enough about this, until a chat with a friend, who said, amongst other things:

I don't want to burden you but I feel like if you were to post something quite directive with specifics on what functions to use on Zoom (which is surely what everyone is using) with some sample vocal activities that work with those, you would really be the hero of the moment and carry barbershop forward while there is serious floudering going on

It may be that there is only the one person in the world who wants more from me about this, but this is for her. Anyone else is welcome to share though :-)

On Surface Over-Compensating

When I was observing a lot of conductors as the heart of the research for my choral conducting book, I noticed how certain hand positions appear to correlate with certain types of relationship with the activity. In particular, I noted a kind of angular hand shape: wrists cocked back, fingers straight and folded forward at a right angle from the main knuckle, thumbs sticking up, and the ictus formed by a kind of scooping motion with the heel of the hand.

The choral sounds that this hand shape typically elicited were quite bright in tone, and reasonably well controlled, but often containing audible vocal tension and lacking bloom on the sound. The overall sound was often rather more contained and muted than you might have expected from the number of singers involved.

Remote Rehearsing: Initial Impressions

Screen-shot from our tea-breakScreen-shot from our tea-break

Well, the internet is fizzing with accounts of how people have been getting on with taking their rehearsals online, so I’m not sure this one is really needed. But I was going to write up my reflections anyway to inform our plans as they develop, so I thought I may was well do this thinking in public, in case anyone was curious about how we actually got on after my last post on the subject.

We used Zoom, and followed a plan sent out in advance with links for each segment of the rehearsal. The first and last segments were all together, with me leading and the chorus doing stuff with mics off – respectively a warm-up, using exercises we use regularly and can all do, and teaching a rhythm exercise for people to practise during the week. We had ten minutes offline midway for a comfort break and to make a cuppa, then 15 mins together with mics on for club business and social time.

Remote Rehearsing for a Time of Social Distancing

From this week, the Telfordaires are moving to remote working for our weekly club night. We made this decision, first, for the obvious public health reasons. Well, I say obvious, but apparently not so very obvious to the UK government, who seem happy to ignore WHO recommendations. But even if our decision is over-cautious, the second reason still remains. [Edit: a few hours after I published this, the UK advice got more sensible. I think it was modelers at Imperial College rather than this post they were responding to though...]

The position that many groups have proposed of, ‘We’ll go ahead but if you feel at risk, stay away, while we continue with the nice things,’ seems to me rather unkind to those already disadvantaged by circumstance. We wanted to find a way for us all to have the nice things, including those chorus members with specific risk factors and/or family members to protect.

The two main reasons I have seen for continuing choir rehearsals in the face of COVID19 are, first, because cancellation devastates the incomes of freelance choral leaders, and, second, because a choir is such an important social/emotional support for its members. Moving to remote working rather than cancelling addresses both of these, and the second in particular has significantly influenced my thinking about quite how to approach this. (Hat-tip at this point to Elizabeth Davies for telling me to read Daniel Coyle's The Culture Code some time back. I've been thinking a lot about it recently for a different project, and it has also proven very useful for this one.)

...found this helpful?

I provide this content free of charge, because I like to be helpful. If you have found it useful, you may wish to make a donation to the causes I support to say thank you.


Archive by date

Syndicate content