Coaching

West Country Double

Remembered to take a pic on the second leg of the trip...Remembered to take a pic on the second leg of the trip...

I’ve been down West a fair bit this month already, and on reading the blog posts after those trips, Samphire quartet got in touch to ask if perchance I was down that way again at all in the run up to the LABBS/European barbershop convention. As it happens, I had one more trip planned, this time to Riviera Sound, and so we extended the trip to get extra use from the train fare, and I took a diversion to Bodmin for the Friday afternoon before heading back to Torquay.

With less than a month to go before contest, the agenda for Samphire was all about moving on from technique and into artistry. By this stage in the preparation cycle, the last thing you need is for singers to be concentrating on managing their voices, or making changes to notes or words. Fortunately, Samphire had clearly been putting in the graft to get the technical dimensions of their performance under control, so it was safe to tell them to trust that work and focus on the meaning of the songs.

Coaching on Cloud9

Cloud9The final adventure of my trip to the Netherlands was to go and work with Cloud9 quartet. They had already had a good deal of coaching over the education weekend (rather more than they had anticipated when we set up our session), so we went into the main song they wanted to work on having had it already significantly deconstructed over the previous two days.

We agreed up front that we would therefore work with the understanding that if there was anything that so in flux to be confusing, we had the choice of using me to facilitate decisions or just parking that question for them to think about when they’d had a bit more time to process their recent experiences.

From Dutch Pride to Route Sixteen

dutchpride
Route16
I am just back from a full-on week of barbershop adventures in the Netherlands – an education weekend for Holland Harmony, framed by three coaching visits. There will be plenty to be blogged about as I process the experiences, so for today I am combining reports of my first two days’ coaching, with Dutch Pride in IJsselstein and Route Sixteen in Dordrecht.

Coaching sessions always cover far more musical details and technical achievements than you could possibly write about in a blog post, and I sometimes come out wondering what should be the focus of a coaching report. On Wednesday night, though, my brain woke me up in the middle of the night to inform me that I should write about a conversation we had about pitch retention after a key change. I have learned that I need to accept my brain’s suggestions if I hope to get any more sleep, so here goes.

Coaching The Chaos Theory

The Chaos Theory, with Floddy the HippoThe Chaos Theory, with Floddy the HippoSunday brought the delightfully-named quartet The Chaos Theory to Birmingham for a day’s coaching. Like several of the groups I am seeing in September, they’re preparing for the LABBS/European Convention in Bournemouth next month, and what looks set to be a tightly-contested (and thus – speaking as an audience member – very enjoyable) quartet contest.

Given the point in the performance-preparation cycle, we were focusing on similar themes to other groups aiming for that event – moving beyond the technical into artistry.

One of the things that most struck me when I was new to barbershop was the astonishing stylistic consistency of contest material – and of course that was one of the points of contest-grade barbershop, to preserve and specialise in certain stylistic thumbprints. The downside of this consistency is the risk that it all starts to sound much the same. The upside is that when an arranger who understands that harmonic language in great depth works with a song that defies those expectations, you can find yourself with a musical narrative that has immense power to engage that specialist audience.

Refining Delivery with Red Rock Harmony

Enjoying the power of the Power PoseEnjoying the power of the Power PoseSaturday took me to Teignmouth to work with my friends from Red Rock Harmony on the songs they are preparing for next months LABBS/European Convention in Bournemouth in Bournemouth. This included the ballad I had worked on intensively during my last visit in July, plus an up-tempo number. With six weeks to go the focus was on refining performances from both technical and artistic perspectives, and on getting the handover from Manager to Communicator well underway.

One theme we explored was the distinction between local and global shaping, between the nuances of delivery within the phrase, and the sculpting of the various expressive worlds at different stages of a song’s form. The chorus was already producing the former intuitively as they responded to lyric and melody, but they needed more of a large-scale structure for these to work within.

Strictly Frisson

Strictlysep17I’m amalgamating my write-ups of Thursday evening’s and Friday morning’s coaching sessions because I’m just coming into a bit of a busy patch, and if I blogged about each of September’s adventures separately I might not catch up with myself until November! And it makes a certain amount of sense to consider my visits to Strictly A Cappella and Frisson together, since all of the latter are members of the former, and we found ourselves dealing with some overlapping themes between the two sessions.

Readers with good memories may remember that I worked with both these ensembles back in July. (And, totally coincidentally, that trip also continued on down to Devon to work with Red Rock chorus – but more of that anon.) And two months is long enough to hear a difference in a group that has been working on consolidating the work done in a previous coaching session.

Expressive GraceNotes

The obligatory warm-up picThe obligatory warm-up pic

I spent Saturday with my friends at the chorus formerly known as Brunel Harmony, working with them on their songs for the LABBS/European Convention next month. Since I last saw them, they have not only acquired their new chorus name, GraceNotes, but have established considerably more control over their consistency of technique. Our task was thus to marry vocal craft and choreography back to meaning to free them up to express the songs.

The primary vocal element that needed focused attention was reasserting control over breath points. There was a clear plan in place, but the extra cognitive load of adding choreography had resulted in extraneous breaths creeping in. The problem wasn’t that the singers couldn’t sustain the phrases (with perhaps one exception discussed below), but that the part of the brain that would remember when to breathe was too busy remembering the moves.

A Dedication of Directors

Director Faculty in actionDirector Faculty in action

There was some discussion after last Saturday’s education day for LABBS chorus directors as to what the collective noun for directors was. We had lots of good suggestions, but I am going with ‘a dedication’ for now because of the way our delegates embraced the preparation we had set for the practical activities with such commitment, resulting in one of the most musically in-depth experiences I have yet managed to orchestrate in a single day.

The coaching model we used was devised, in the first instance, to answer the question as to how to offer practical skills training to lots of people with the resources we had available, You can teach a discussion-based class to a room of 70 people and it works, but hands-on skills need individual attention. In the process, it also answered another question of practical training I have been grappling with – how to develop directors’ musicianship skills. You can communicate ideas in a day, but musicianship takes ongoing work to flourish.

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