Excellence

Helping Holland Harmonise

The Buzz: They did sing an 8-parter with Crossroads, but I had run out of battery by then, so no pic...The Buzz: They did sing an 8-parter with Crossroads, but I had run out of battery by then, so no pic...

The weekend after my adventures at BinG! Harmony College, I was at serving on the faculty at another Harmony College, this time in the Netherlands. I’m going to try to avoid talking about Holland Harmony’s event primarily in terms that compare it with Germany’s and treat it as a subject in its own right as it deserves.

But just to get the comparisons out of the way, I’ll note that it wasn’t just the proximity in dates that make it tempting to consider them side by side. They both had a similar structure, with a contest on the first evening, an informal sign-up show on the Saturday night, and a final show-and-tell performance session to finish the weekend. There were also several faculty members in common between the two events.

BinG! Harmony College 2016

Welcoming the assembled delegatesWelcoming the assembled delegates

Over the weekend I was back in Oberwesel with my friends from BinG! (Barbershop in Germany) for their Harmony College. Like last year, I come home with a note-book full of ideas to digest and a heart full of the nourishment you get from events that are intensive both musically and interpersonally.

As an experience for repeat visitors, it offered both continuity and familiarity, and a sense of change and renewal. You could say this of the faculty list, which included returners from last year like me, returners from previous years, and faces completely new to BinG!, and also of the content and organisation of the school. New for this year were opportunities for quartet singers to participate in the college choruses, a taster ‘extreme quartet experience’ scheme intended to make quartet activity accessible to those who didn’t have a quartet to come to the school with, as well as a different selection of classes on offer.

Artistry in Amersham

The customary hastily-snapped warm-up pic...The customary hastily-snapped warm-up pic...

Tuesday evening took me down to have a whirlwind session with my friends at Amersham A Cappella. We got through an unbelievable quantity of stuff in a little over two hours, through a combination of some virtuoso prioritising from their director Helen Lappert and me (to blow our own trumpets unashamedly) and the stupendous level of up-for-it-ness the chorus brings to everything they do. It helps that they have very secure technical skills so we were able to work on artistry confident that their voices would be able to deliver what the songs needed.

We spent the first part of the session working on my medley of ‘Hit Me With a Hot Note’ and ‘Too Darn Hot’ that they won a silver medal with at LABBS Convention last year, and then took a whistle-stop tour through their repertoire, encompassing a new barbershop ballad, a Katy Perry song, a spiritual and a madrigal. As you can imagine, this makes it quite a tricky evening to summarise!

Swinging with Revival

RevivalSaturday brought Revival quartet over for a coaching session in preparation for the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers quartet prelims in June. This is a quartet that is recently formed, but brings together a lot of experience, each of the singers having sung in previous champion quartets within the association. Indeed, three of them had come here for coaching with previous quartets, so from my perspective it felt more like a reunion than a revival!

Our focus was on swing song that was in good general shape, both in terms of technical control and musical characterisation, and so ripe for bringing its detail to life. The starting-point for swing is inevitably rhythmic shape: back-beat, swung quavers, flavour/feel of the groove in dialogue with tempo. Interestingly, though, once that framework is secure (which, with a couple of momentary exceptions, it was here) you find yourself working a lot more with texture and orchestration.

Doug Harrington and Helen Lappert on Planning for Freshness

I neglected to take a photo during the session, so here is a pic of two very positive people to set the sceneI neglected to take a photo during the session, so here is a pic of two very positive people to set the sceneAt last week’s Harmony College, I was running the Directors’ Stream, in my capacity as LABBS Chorus Director Development Specialist. (Nice job title, eh? Useful for when I need to tell people what my role is in the association these days.) Our theme for the weekend was ‘Keeping it Fresh’, and one of the ways we kept things fresh for our delegates was having input from a variety of the faculty on hand for the event.

This included a rather wonderful double act from guest educator Doug Harrington and Helen Lappert, director of Amersham A Cappella on the subject of planning for freshness. I wanted to have a mull on it today as not only did include lots of useful practical advice, but there were some interesting resonances with the session I had done on Saturday on the psychology of Flow, and with Philip Zimbardo’s ideas about our relationship with time I explored some years ago.

On End-Gaining

The concept of ‘end-gaining’ comes from Alexander Technique, which defines it as a kind of relationship with the world in which you are so focused on getting the result you want (gaining your end, indeed) that you go about it way which way without adequate attention to how, or as AT puts it, the ‘means whereby’. AT is all about inhibiting habitual or impulsive responses for long enough to assert control over the means whereby you do things.

End-gaining is on the face of it about impatience. It is also about focusing on outcome goals to the exclusion of process goals. The mind-set that leads people to game the system, or - in extremis - to cheat, is one of end-gaining, as it comes with an emphasis on extrinsic rather than intrinsic rewards. In other contexts, end-gaining drives you into that state of unhappy over-practising where you hammer away at the notes of the too-hard passage without stepping back to analyse either the musical structures that holds it together or the technical skills it requires. 10,000 hours of this kind of work produces injury rather than mastery.

On Kahneman’s Two Systems and the Acquisition of Skill

kahneman

Last time I wrote about this, I gave an overview of the Daniel Kahneman’s model of two types of thinking we use, their functions, and their relationship. Today I want to mull over the implications of this for teaching and learning.

The ultimate goal of skill acquisition is to get System 1 doing all your routine operations. You want to be able to do your thing fluently, automatically, with ease and pleasure. It’s not just that it feels good to work in this mode, it’s that complex tasks need so many decisions to be coordinated that even if you had the cognitive resources to make them all in real time, it would be too slow to work properly. This is how it feels performing on a bad day when your inner voice is hectoring you: you react too late, and then you over-react.

Learning with Lemov: Without Apology

In my early years as a lecturer, I was teaching a class on music analysis one day, when a student asked, ‘And why are we learning this?’ It’s the kind of question that can come over as quite confrontational, especially when you are feeling new to the game. But it’s also a good question to ask every so often. So I talked for a short while about why I thought the method we were looking at was useful to musicians (I suspect it was Schenker, but can’t actually remember for sure). The student accepted my answer, and we went on with the class, all of us feeling some relief that we weren’t wasting our time together.

This incident came back to me as I read Doug Lemov’s principle of teaching Without Apology. If we implicitly (or indeed explicitly) apologise for the content we deliver or the people we deliver to it, we lower expectations about both the achievements that are possible or the rewards that come from achieving it. If we don’t believe in what and who we teach/conduct, who will?

So that’s a principle that’s easy to agree with in the abstract, but let’s look at some of the ways it can play out in a choral context.

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