Excellence

More on the Use of Language in Rehearsal

I know, I know, it’s a theme I keep coming back to. But along with the physical posture and gesture a conductor uses, their choice of words to address their ensemble makes up the much of the fabric of lived experience in that group. And even the most disciplined director who manages to minimise their verbal instructions needs to say things sometimes.

So, my usual tack through this theme is to encourage directors and coaches to give positive to-dos rather than name the problem. Don’t verbalise the diagnosis (‘delivery is a bit ploddy’), go straight to the intervention (‘sing with more flow’).

Keep doing this, it’s good advice.

The Quality Director

One of the great rewards, as I have remarked before, of working with amateur musicians is that you get to meet and learn from professionals in all kinds of other arenas. I had one such learning experience during my trip to Germany in April, when I had the opportunity to chat at some length with Stef Schmidt, who works, between her intensive bouts of barbershopping, as the director for quality in a manufacturing company.

She was very interesting on the subject of how to engage people in solving existing problems, and, more importantly, in getting them to help prevent future problems before they happen. I immediately wanted to interrogate her on how she uses these skills in her rehearsal processes, and this post is my opportunity to reflect on the notes I took after our conversation.

BABS Convention 2018

Momentum Chorus: photo credit - BABSMomentum Chorus: photo credit - BABS

The three major talking points for the final weekend in May this year were the Ireland’s repeal of the 8th amendment, Momentum’s astonishing performance in the mixed barbershop chorus contest, and the glitzy yet ill-designed refurbishment of the toilets in Harrogate International Centre. Of the three, only the second is strictly relevant for this blog, and the other two I’m sure are covered more thoroughly elsewhere anyway.

If you’ve seen the contest scores, you’ll already know that Momentum’s performance was better than anything we saw in the World Mixed Voice competition in Munich the previous month, though in my view the scores don’t show quite how much better. I’d like to hear them in a head-to-head with Heavy Medal, as I think they could give them a run for their money.

In Praise of Imperfection

A couple of situations during my workshops at the Holland Harmony education weekend back in September got me reflecting again on our relationship as musicians with error. It’s not just that making mistakes is part of the human condition, so learning to cope with and recover from them is an important part of our musical skillset. It’s that in some situations they have a positive value in their own right.

This first came up in my two workshops on coaching techniques. These were practical classes, with participants coaching a guest quartet leading to discussion points about ways to maximise the effectiveness of the process. The first group was working with a quartet put together for the occasion from the halves of two other quartets, while the second had the current Holland Harmony gold medal quartet, LinQ.

Holland Harmony Education Weekend: Further Reflections

A drawing of what Adam was doingA drawing of what Adam was doingA few weeks on, and I’ve had time to untangle some of the notes in my thinking book about the Holland Harmony education weekend back in September. As I discussed in my main report on the event, both the teaching process and the interactions with other coaches offered manifold opportunities to grow. So here are some of the things I learned that are going to be useful in my ongoing quest to help people make good music.

On the Fear of Improvement

I have often quipped over the years that many people find increasing their skill levels to be an experience like the old song, ‘Everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die’ – as in, everyone wants to get better, but nobody wants to change. But I have been reflecting recently on a phenomenon that lies behind this inertia: some people seem actively to fear getting better.

Phrase it like that, and it sounds bonkers. Why would anyone shy away from being more competent and assured at doing the thing they love? But it is an observable phenomenon, and one which I need to understand if I am to succeed in my life’s aim of helping people make music with more confidence, skill and joy.

You have to look quite carefully to make the observation, of course. People don’t come straight out and say that they’re not going to use a technique that will improve their breath control or range or expressive power because they’re scared of it. Rather, it emerges in various forms of blocking behaviour: self-sabotage, distraction, attacking the legitimacy of the technique or the person who’s teaching it, picking a fight over something completely unrelated.

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.

Emotionally Resilient Choirs: An Addendum

My post a couple of weeks back on On Building an Emotionally Resilient Choir received a response on Facebook that I thought may be of interest to other readers, so I’m following it up here. It’s one of those wonderful questions that choral directing is so full of – simultaneously philosophical and intensely practical:

Interested in finding the balance between "don't be grumpy" and saying "we can work on this" whilst also maintaining an expectation that certain things will be done at home by individuals as preparation for or follow-up to rehearsals.

See what I mean? At the heart of it is the worry that by choosing to be kind to our singers we will have therefore to sacrifice our standards. What if we don’t want to choose between these?

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