Coaching

Developing the Director at Three Spires Harmony

AprilTSHTuesday night took me over to Three Spires Harmony in Coventry to work primarily with their director, April Stevens. April is in her first post as a director, and having got a few months experience under her belt – getting to know the chorus, getting to know the music – she was ready for some specific input on her conducting technique.

Incidentally, April’s trajectory is an exemplary case study of what sociologist Robert Stebbins has termed a barbershop ‘career’. His point is that one of the things that marks a hobby out as ‘serious leisure’ is the way its structure offers opportunities for individuals to progress and develop over time.

So, like April, you can start out as a singer in a chorus, get promoted onto its music team, and from there be in a position to take on the directorship of another local chorus. In April’s case, this career progression is being explicitly supported by the director of the chorus she sings with, The Belles of Three Spires, and I am certain this mentoring has helped both chorus and director settle in together more readily. I just mention it in case anyone else wants to do likewise in similar circumstances.

A Weekend with the Barberlights

Barberlights
Unless something unexpected happens very soon, last weekend was my last coaching trip to Germany for 2018. This time I was with the Barberlights in Remseck, near Stuttgart, and we had a full schedule together, starting Friday evening and continuing all day Saturday and most of Sunday too. To say this allowed us to get a lot done together would be an understatement.

It wasn’t just the sheer number of hours we spent together, I’d add, it was the chance to sleep on our experiences together and revisit the next day. In this sense, the session on Friday, though only an hour and a half long, really punched above its weight. Not only did we start Saturday having done some groundwork together, we’d also given our brains the chance to process, sort and embed the work.

A Brand New Endeavour

Warm-up action picWarm-up action pic

I spent Sunday working with Endeavour, a brand new mixed barbershop chorus. They have been in the planning for some time, but actually sang together for the first time on Saturday, so I had the honour being their first ever visiting coach. Their singers are drawn from barbershop groups in Ireland, the UK and Germany, so their rehearsals take the form of intensive weekends in locations handy for airports.

It is an auditioned chorus, and many of the singers know each other from participating in the various Harmony Brigades. Hence, it is populated with people with considerable experience and skill as singers, and who are accustomed to learning music independently. Their challenge is melding these vocal and musical resources into a coherent ensemble within a short timescale so as to make the most of the artistic potential available.

Building Traditions with The Rhubarbs

About to start the warm-up...About to start the warm-up...

Over dinner on Saturday night in Bonn I was informed that in that part of the world, doing something twice made a tradition, and doing something three times created a tradition that goes back to time immemorial. So with this second visit to coach The Rhubarbs had rendered our working together traditional.

This time we had two full days together, which allowed us not only to explore more different themes, but also to work on something one day and revisit after a night’s sleep to see which had embedded overnight, and which needed more work to secure them,

A recurrent theme throughout the weekend was the relationship between breath, support and resonance. Establishing a deep-set breath with bucket-cup-teaspoon exercises at the start of each session set us up to develop the clarity of tone that not only adds brightness to the sound but allows the breath to last longer, as it comes from more efficient contact of the vocal folds. Once you get the voice set up this way, it tends to stay there, only needing occasional reminders to empty the bucket completely before starting to sing to reset any time the tone loses focus.

Workshopping with Just Voices

Warm-up action shot!Warm-up action shot!

I spent the weekend down in the second most eastward point of the UK, where Just Voices had convened to hold a weekend’s retreat in Broadstairs. We structured it as two one-day workshops on contrasting themes, but addressing a common core of pieces from their repertoire.

Saturday saw us focusing on the singers as musicians, with a bespoke workshop on Aural Skills for Choral Groups, while Sunday took our attention back out onto the audience with the theme Perform with Panache. We had slightly less time at our disposal on Sunday, though, so we compensated for that by taking the opportunity of the Saturday evening together to prime some ideas to be working on overnight.

Reflections on Coaching: Transformative or Flashy…?

My friend Stefanie Schmidt once made the comment that the kind of coaching sessions she finds most valuable are the ones that give her a concept or a technique she can go away and work on. These may not on the face of it look like the most impactful sessions, as the results aren’t immediately audible, but rather emerge later, and over time. But they make the greatest difference in the longer term.

She contrasted these experiences with those she termed ‘flashy’ coaching. The latter make major changes to the group’s performance, generating great enthusiasm and emotional energy, but not necessarily leaving the group with the wherewithal to recreate the same effect when the coach has gone home and left them to it. Flashy coaching’s legacy can actually to be to undermine the self-belief of people who have been given a glimpse of greatness but find themselves unable reach it again by themselves.

Motivating the Moves with the Chordettes

chordettessep18Sunday took me down to Devon to revisit the Chordettes in the run up to their contest performance at the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers Convention next month. In the three months since I last saw them they have embedded many of the things we worked on back in June, especially their bubbling embouchure and bucket-cup-teaspoon breathing, and were ready to move onto coaching more focused on the audience experience in anticipation of bringing their songs to the stage.

Sculpting a Story with Bristol A Cappella

Traditional warm-up picTraditional warm-up picI spent last Sunday with my friends at Bristol A Cappella helping them in their preparation for the Irish Association of Barbershop Singers Convention next month. As with my last visit, they had spent the previous day with Sandra Lea-Riley working on the Performance dimension of the package, which this time included the most ambitious choreography the group have embarked on to date.

Sandra had helped them refine their concepts and sharpen up their execution, but at the point I arrived they still needed more time on it to get it embedded. My remit was therefore to help them reconnect their visual performance with their vocal performance.

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