Choral

Make Our Garden Grow

Some years ago, I participated in Birmingham Opera Company’s production of Candide, and one of the abidingly inspirational memories it left is of the final chorus, ‘Make Our Garden Grow’. You get the sense of the musical lushness from this extract, but you need the full context of the opera’s moral journey to get the full effect.

At the time, I was a novice and intermittent gardener. In fact, I seem to recall that quite a lot of our overwintering plants perished through lack of water in an unusually dry January and February while we were busy rehearsing for the show. But as I have grown in experience and confidence in my relationship with plants, the ethical resonances of that piece has stayed at the back of my mind.

It came to the front of my mind recently, what with some good weather to get out amongst the plants, and gardening being a good activity when you have some thinking to do. It struck me that as an activity, it is an excellent metaphor for Choice Theory. You can’t force a plant to grow, all you can do is endeavour to create an environment in which it will flourish. And since my primary reason for thinking about Choice Theory was its implications for directing a choir, I got to mulling on gardening as a metaphor for this too.

On Building an Emotionally Resilient Choir

This is a theme I mentioned in relation to the session at the LABBS Directors Day in July, but there wasn’t space to expand on it that post. It was a session I included in the programme after having had several conversations during the spring that included reports of singers feeling anxious about the LABBS Convention in October.

Now, performance nerves is one thing (and something we can help with!), but worrying about an event several months in advance is just not how the world should be. People join choirs as a way to escape from the stresses of life, not to gain whole new areas of stress. Besides, fretting is terrible for pitch retention.

The Choral Director’s Golden Triangle

Director's Triangle

There’s a useful concept in project management of the Golden Triangle. It is formed by three aspects of any project: Scope (how much it covers), Time (how long it will take to complete), and Resource (both human and physical – what you need to complete it, and therefore how much it will cost).

The point of the triangle is that your plan will quantify all three, but in practice you will probably only be able to control two of them. So, when real life inevitably starts to depart from what you’d planned (inevitably because projects are by definition things you don’t do regularly so inherently subject to unforeseen circumstances), one or other of these three is going to slip.

On Rational and Experiential Objectives

One of the Really Useful Concepts (so useful it needed Gratuitous Capitalisation) that I acquired at my recent course on facilitation skills was the distinction between rational and experiential objectives. It is one of those concepts that is so simple when it is pointed out to you, and in fact describes something you do anyway, but when given a label allows you to do things on purpose to be more effective.

Your rational objective for a workshop or consultation, or indeed for a rehearsal, lesson or practice session, is what you want to achieve by the time you finish. Anyone who has written course materials in higher education is fully familiar with this idea. You spend a lot of your time writing the back end of sentences that start, ‘On successful completion of this module, students will be able to…’.

Thoughts on the Colwall Requiem for Aleppo

ColwallI didn’t go to the world premiere of Liz Johnson’s glorious new choral work intending to write about it. I just went to support the endeavours of a friend I hadn’t seen so much of since she moved out of Birmingham – it would be nice to see her, I admired her fundraising and awareness-raising efforts for refugees, and I knew the music would be beautiful.

It was beautiful, and also moving. I can’t remember the last time I actually dripped tears during a concert. And then she brought us back to a place of hope by the end of the piece so we were emotionally safe to head back into the real world.

There are two particular aspects to Liz’s compositional voice I’d like to reflect on here. The first is her distinctive and assured handling of dissonance. The music moves seamlessly along a continuum from very harmonic and euphonius to uncompromisingly dissonant whilst always sounding realistically like it belongs in the same musical world. Part of this I think comes from the way she’ll season the consonant passages with strategically placed diatonic clashes that provide poignancy in the moment, but also help to mediate between the different regions of her harmonic palette.

Singing for Europe

On Saturday I headed down to London to participate with 100,000 or so other people in the Unite for Europe march, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome. As you may have seen from my blog past last month I had got involved in a group intending to spend the march singing, and had done some arrangements for the occasion.

What I wasn’t entirely expecting to happen was that I ended up leading this scratch choir for the whole of the day. It’s fine, I’m always happy to help people harmonise, but it was an interesting case study in how, in a fluid situation, people get assigned roles very quickly.

When Jonathan and I found our way to our assigned meeting place, there were probably no more than 10 people gathered from our group. (It was kind of hard to tell as there was a horde of Liberal Democrats passing through the same place - some of whom stopped to sing with us en route.) But there were clearly enough of us to have a crack at one of the songs, and it just happened to be me who gathered together the various thoughts floating about (let’s start with Ode to Joy, let’s do a verse of unison and then go into parts, let’s try out the online karaoke app that delivers lyrics to people’s phones), gave a key note and start note, and coordinated the start with Alan who was controlling the app.

The Conductors’ Four Questions

In my post last month on developing the director I wrote about the usefulness of having a regular appointment with yourself for structured work on a specified area for development. Today I’d like to talk about a set of questions that I give to conductors I work with to structure their reflective process.

  1. What did we achieve?
  2. How does everyone feel about themselves?
  3. What does the music need?
  4. What do the singers need?

To start, a few words about the choice and phrasing of the questions.

Minor Changes in Availability of Arrangements

There have been some alternating rumbles of excitement and disappointment in the arranging community over the last year or two over a programme developed by Sheet Music Plus in collaboration with Hal Leonard. They have produced a list of about 1000 songs pre-approved for arranging, so long as you publish the arrangements through SMP. Anyone who has to grapple with the bureaucracy of copyright permissions for new arrangements finds their ears perking up when they hear of it.

The disappointment arrives when you realise that one of the excluded ensembles is choral. I’d been round that loop a couple of times when my friend Debi Cox had the bright idea of actually contacting them with a query, and established that while they don’t know when they’ll be able to add choral arrangements to the list, they are able to accept arrangements for chamber-sized, one-a-part a cappella groups such as barbershop quartets and contemporary a cappella ensembles, up to 8 parts.

Hurrah!...However…

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