Peer Learning with Holland Harmony

The weekend's final masterclass, with the New Harvest SingersThe weekend's final masterclass, with the New Harvest Singers

My trip to the Netherlands was precipitated by an invitation to serve on the faculty for an education weekend for Holland Harmony's quartets and musical leaders. It was thus a smaller event, in terms of numbers, than last year’s Harmony College, but it was commensurately more focused. Once again we had an all-star international faculty, delivering a programme of workshops that made all of us wish we had time to go and hear each other’s offerings.

As usual after this kind of intensive weekend, I have a notebook-full of thoughts and reflections stimulated by the experience, some of which will work their way into blog posts over the coming weeks and months as I process them. In the first instance, though, it’s the nature of learning experience itself, rather than the musical content of that learning, that holds my attention.

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?

A Dedication of Directors

Director Faculty in actionDirector Faculty in action

There was some discussion after last Saturday’s education day for LABBS chorus directors as to what the collective noun for directors was. We had lots of good suggestions, but I am going with ‘a dedication’ for now because of the way our delegates embraced the preparation we had set for the practical activities with such commitment, resulting in one of the most musically in-depth experiences I have yet managed to orchestrate in a single day.

The coaching model we used was devised, in the first instance, to answer the question as to how to offer practical skills training to lots of people with the resources we had available, You can teach a discussion-based class to a room of 70 people and it works, but hands-on skills need individual attention. In the process, it also answered another question of practical training I have been grappling with – how to develop directors’ musicianship skills. You can communicate ideas in a day, but musicianship takes ongoing work to flourish.

On Rational and Experiential Objectives

One of the Really Useful Concepts (so useful it needed Gratuitous Capitalisation) that I acquired at my recent course on facilitation skills was the distinction between rational and experiential objectives. It is one of those concepts that is so simple when it is pointed out to you, and in fact describes something you do anyway, but when given a label allows you to do things on purpose to be more effective.

Your rational objective for a workshop or consultation, or indeed for a rehearsal, lesson or practice session, is what you want to achieve by the time you finish. Anyone who has written course materials in higher education is fully familiar with this idea. You spend a lot of your time writing the back end of sentences that start, ‘On successful completion of this module, students will be able to…’.

Left-brain, Right-brain, and Other Pseudo-scientific Clichés

This is one of those posts that emerges from the confluence in my head of conversations with several different people over the course of a few months. What I really want is to get the various people involved into the same room together and say ‘You know what you were talking about with me in January? Say it them to see what they come back with.’ But in the absence of that opportunity (and in the recognition that even if I did they’d all probably have moved on and would want to talk about something else) I’m going to have to use my own imagination instead to work out the connections and contradictions.

There were at least two conversations about left-brain versus right-brain thinking, one in the context of teaching and learning, the other a report of a speaker who had reinterpreted the dichotomy as one of focused attention versus peripheral awareness. There were also discussions of a study that contends that the concept of ‘learning styles’ has no evidential validity, and just functions as a self-fulfilling educational ideology. All these landed into a brain that was already brewing thoughts about how much of the claims made for the health benefits of singing are presented in ways that claim a scientific basis with very little reliable underpinning.

More Musings on Mindsets

After my introductory post on Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets, I promised to come back and tease out the connections with themes previously explored in this blog. For there are many. You will have noticed that I am quite rabidly growth-oriented in my stance as an educator, so there are lots connections to be made. The challenge is going to be organising them…

At the big-picture level, there are a cluster of themes I have explored over the years. Long-term readers will have seen my critique of the discourse of talent become increasingly hard-line each time I come back to it, and Dweck’s analysis will only encourage me in this dimension. Indeed, now I go back and look at my thoughts on the dangers of being young and talented, it looks awfully like her accounts of fixed-mindset difficulties.

The growth mindset, by contrast resonates strongly with my past musings on expanding your boundaries and our relationship with challenge. And one of Dweck’s key findings, for me, is the insight that your beliefs about capacity and skill determine whether you experience challenge as an adventure or a threat.

Musings on Mindsets

mindsetCarol Dweck’s research on the nature and ramifications of different mindsets is one of those ideas that has percolated through our culture quite thoroughly over the last few years. I have found myself in conversations about it with friends in teaching, and friends with small children, as well as coming across it in miscellaneous ephemeral self-help type articles online.

The general outline is probably as familiar to you as it is to me: there are two broad mindsets or belief-systems about human capability, the fixed mindset (belief that capacities are essentially innate) and the growth mindset (belief that capacities are largely learned). These shape how you go about what you do, and how you respond to others.

But eventually there comes a time when you realise you’d better actually read the book itself, not just rely on second-hand knowledge.

Re-Framing the Tricky Bits

Two vignettes from my undergraduate education:

In a piano lesson, playing through a piece I was working on, and stumbling slightly. ‘Yes, that bit is difficult,’ said my teacher, clearly wishing to reassure me that it was understandable that I wasn’t yet playing it as well as the rest. But I had a sudden, sinking feeling that now he’d said that, I was never going to be able to play it.

In a visiting lecture from organist Gillian Weir, reporting on her studies with Olivier Messaien. ‘There’s no such thing as difficult music,’ he had told her. ‘There’s only music you can’t play yet. Remember the music you were working on two years ago? You can play it now, but you used to think it too hard. But the music hasn’t changed.’

Looking back, I suspect it was the first experience that made me so ready to embrace the message of the second. And I have spent my life as an educator trying to avoid labelling things as difficult. Whenever somebody says anything to me that starts with the words ‘I can’t…’ I have a compulsion to add ‘yet’ to the end of their sentence.

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