Learning

Myelinating with Mo

The recent LABBS Harmony College brought lots of interesting resonances with the blog post I had scheduled to come out the day after I got home from it. This is not entirely a coincidence of course – at the time I was writing about practice processes and shunting between local and global, I was also refining my notes for a session on rehearsal techniques that focused on Daniel Coyle’s Talent Code, and its accounts of how we acquire skills.

But our guest educator Mo Field also gave us a lot to enrich that understanding. Her coaching under glass session with Soundhouse and Avalon quartets on Saturday evening was a masterclass in myelination. She took very little time before she started to delve deep, paring down to two singers each on a single note and spending a long time there before building up to four singers and three or notes at a go. Then when she pulled the camera back to take in wider stretches of music, the singers were able to continue accessing the new paths they had gone down as they had spent long enough there to get them at least partly established.

Thinking Faces

I recently reread Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code to refresh myself before teaching a class that drew on it at LABBS Harmony College. The great thing about rereading things is that you can suddenly spot all kinds of cross-references with things you have read since – connections which, by definition, weren’t available to you the first time you read it.

One of the points that leapt out at me is Coyle’s description of people engaged in deep practice – the behaviours that lead to myelination and thus the development of skill. They display a characteristic facial expression, a kind of intent squint that makes them all look rather like Clint Eastwood. So of course I went to refresh my memory of his face and laughed out loud at the results of a google image search – my screen reminded me of a class or a choir when I’ve just asked them to do something they’ve not done before.

LABBS Harmony College 2019

Arty long-shot of our central themeArty long-shot of our central themeEvery so often, the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers replaces its usual programme of regional education days and training events for chorus directors and quartets with a single grand shindig. The last Harmony College took place in 2016, to celebrate the organisation’s 40th birthday, and it was so well received that it was decided to programme them into the events cycle every three years.

Hence, 330 of us – mostly but not exclusively LABBS members – gathered together at Nottingham University last weekend. This was a significantly larger number than three years ago (to the extent that the organisation kept having to go back to the university to get more bedrooms allocated), so I don’t see Harmony College losing its place in the cycle any time soon.

The Robot/Human Dialectic

There’s an exercise I like to do with ensembles in which they toggle between singing as if they were a robot and as if they were a human being. It’s interesting because you think before you start that it’s primarily about expressiveness – turning both vocal and facial empathy for the music on and off. Which it is, but it also turns out to be about technical control. The robot mode typically displays not only a more angular rather than flowing sense of shape, but also much cleaner synchronisation of rhythm and word sounds. You lose something by turning off your humanity, but you gain something too.

I recently had a conversation with an individual singer about managing his relationship with these two states. He generally gives his primary focus to accuracy (an attitude that you have to like), but feels this can result in a robotic delivery: ‘I don’t think I know how to sing a melody like a Lead, while still doing all the stuff on placement, timing etc,’ he said.

Atomic Quartet Coaching

AtomicI spent Monday afternoon until mid-afternoon on Tuesday with Atomic Quartet, who had come up from Cornwall for an intensive bout of coaching both as quartet and as individual singers. They had initially suggested doing PVIs (‘personal voice instruction’ for those unfamiliar with the acronym) on the Monday, followed by quartet coaching the next day, but I inflected this model into a more flexible approach that shifted between individual and ensemble work more fluidly.

I remembered the way that Rivka Golani taught viola at the Birmingham Conservatoire. All her students were entitled to a certain number of hours of one-to-one tuition as part of their course, but rather than seeing them one at a time, she used to have all of them together for one day a week, observing as she worked with each in turn. Her students spoke very positively of this experience, and I observed strong bonds of trust between them.

On Repetition

The French for rehearsal is ‘répétition’, which captures an interestingly different aspect of the process than the English term’s implications of ‘trial run’. Things need doing more than once to secure the combination of mental concept and motor actions we experience as ‘doing it right’.

But simply repeating things isn’t enough. It is easy to spend a lot of rehearsal time repeating the same errors and inadequacies you are already quite good at. Improving the music requires a change in behaviour.

This process of making changes, then routinising them is a recurring theme of this blog over the years. I’ve looked at it via Kotter’s model of organisation change, through the Dilts Pyramid, and most directly through my model of the Intervention and Enforcement Cycles (which itself crystallised in the wake of reading Doug Lemov’s ideas on effective classroom habits). Oh, and then with additions from Chip and Dan Heath last year.

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.

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.

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