Learning

Soapbox: On Transcending Technique

soapboxWhen I had been lecturing just a few years, I was entertained to look back and notice how my focus had shifted over time.

During the first year, when I was doing everything anew, content was king: structuring lectures, choosing musical examples, figuring out what amongst the infinite possibilities it was most important for my students to learn. During the second year, when I had a stash of content to work from, I was focused on the how rather than the what: the variety of learning activities, reaching different learning styles. During the third year I mostly seemed to obsess about heating and oxygen levels in the classrooms.

This memory came back to me recently as I reflected on a theme I’ve heard reasonably often when experienced musicians are teaching the less experienced.

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.

On Unlearning and Relearning Songs

This post is for anyone who has ever learned one part in a song, and then switched to another part at a later date. Learning the new part is one challenge, not getting distracted back onto singing your original part is another one.

I was asked if had any advice on this recently, and I realised that it’s something I have done a good deal, and rarely get the different parts tangled up in my head. So I’m writing this post to work out what strategies I have used to do this, or indeed what strategies I might have wanted to use had I found it harder than I did. I have three main suggestions so far.

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.

Basic Conducting Skills with abcd

Our venue for the day: Polish Millenium HouseOur venue for the day: Polish Millenium HouseI spent Saturday in central Birmingham leading a one-day course in basic conducting skills for the Association of British Choral Directors. We had participants representing a wonderful range of choral backgrounds – school choirs, church choirs, barbershop choruses, community choirs of various flavours, musical theatre, chamber choirs, a composer wanting to direct her own work. I had worried a little about meeting everyone’s needs, but in fact the breadth was very useful as it meant that nobody felt like the odd one out in terms of background or activity.

One of the things I particularly enjoy about teaching for the abcd is the way our courses are resolutely practical. Yes, there are topics that need discussion – repertoire choice, rehearsal planning, leadership and people skills – but the hand skills that are both central to and unique to conducting remain at the heart of what we do. Every participant has the opportunity to be coached as they lead the rest of the group in song, and everyone subsequently has the opportunity to review video footage of all the coaching sessions to aid their reflection and onward development.

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.

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