Coaching

Working with the Munich Show Chorus Music Team

MunichShowChorus

After the Barbershop Musikfestival last weekend, we stayed on in Munich for a couple of days so that I could do an evening’s music team training with the world champion mixed chorus on their next Tuesday rehearsal. Of course, when we made the arrangements to do this, they were merely the Munich Show Chorus, but I think they could get to like their new accolade.

Three days after contest is not your orthodox moment to bring in an external coach, but they had devised an imaginative way to use my availability in the city combined with starting a new repertoire project for a concert in the summer.

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.

Making Music the Mantunian Way

Action shot of Sitting-Standing-KneelingAction shot of Sitting-Standing-Kneeling

Last Sunday took me up to Manchester to work with Mantunian Way, the men’s chorus from the Manchester University Barbershop Society. They are preparing for the BABS Convention in Harrogate in May, and this was their last rehearsal before a three week break over Easter. It is a rehearsal rhythm driven by university term times, and it has some drawbacks in terms of loss of momentum, but it also offers some advantages. When you come back after a break, some things are forgotten, others have embedded themselves without you noticing and are suddenly fluent.

It is an intelligent chorus – university students are by definition people who are in the habit of absorbing and applying new ideas – and as I coached I had my eyes not just on their performance in two months time, but in the potential for this cohort to produce barbershop’s leaders of tomorrow. We dealt not just in what to do with particular moments of songs, but generalisable principles that can be applied to other repertoire in other circumstances.

Exploring Breath and Emotion with The Venus Effect

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On Friday night I finally got to have the coaching session with The Venus Effect that we had had to cancel for snow three weeks earlier. It was the first time I’d heard them since our session just before I disappeared to Australia and I was looking forward to hearing what they’d done with the techniques for unit sound we’d worked on then.

It turns out that regular technical work makes a difference. Who knew?

We spent part of the session extending this work. In exercises we played with alternating adjacent vowels on a unison to hear the shifting overtones. This translates in repertoire to the experience of harmonically static passages where the colours shift with the different vowels sounds of the lyric. It was notable both that it was very clear which songs had already been subject to this kind of close-listening and which hadn’t, and how much more fluently the quartet achieved good results when applying them to new repertoire than four months ago.

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.

Explorations in Musical Shape with Cheshire Chord Company

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After a series of cancellations on Thursday, Friday and Saturday last week due to weather-related travel disruptions, I was delighted finally to be able to fulfil a coaching commitment on Sunday. My friends at Cheshire Chord Company had invited me back to work through a couple of songs they are currently learning.

We spent the morning on barbershop swing standard ‘That’s Life’. This is a classic chart that always comes over enjoyably in performance, but is often quite generalised in its expression. There is, we discovered, a good deal more scope than you might have guessed both for creating a large-scale arc and for finding nuance in the detail.

Coaching with The Rhubarbs

Classic warm-up pic, this one with natural lightClassic warm-up pic, this one with natural light

The weekend saw me heading off to Germany to work with barbershoppers in Bonn. The plan had been to spend Saturday afternoon with quartet Note-4-Note and Sunday with their chorus, The Rhubarbs, but the winter’s cold viruses had other ideas, and so I ended up with rather more time for sight-seeing time than usual. The Drachenfels makes a wonderful afternoon out, but it was still a pity to miss working with the quartet.

Looking back on the chorus day on Sunday, I am quite astonished at how productive it was. We visited areas including vocal skills, aural skills, story-telling/characterisation, directing skills and stage-craft, as well as the regular problem-solving of details in the repertoire that a coaching session would usually cover. Oh, and re-stacking the chorus by voice timbre.

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