Rehearsing

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.

Paying Compliments with Fascinating Rhythm

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I spent Thursday evening with the Music Team of Fascinating Rhythm chorus in Gloucestershire, sharing a bespoke workshop based on my themed offerings of Musical Music Team and Effective Rehearsal Skills. Thursday is their regular chorus night, so this was a development opportunity not just for their MD, section leaders and assistant section leaders, but also for the team they had deputised to run the rehearsal in their absence.

As the evening progressed, how to pay a compliment emerged as a specific technique to hone. Role-playing section rehearsals to explore the Intervention/Enforcement cycles, it became clear that the team were already quite adept at identifying appropriate interventions, and they took quite readily to framing them briefly and positively. The apparently simpler task of starting off by saying something positive about what they’d just heard took more work.

On the Emotional Shape of Change

emotionalshapeChip and Dan Heath’s Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard reports a useful analysis of the emotional shape of projects.* At the start, spirits are high. As you get stuck into the project, people start to get bogged down – things go wrong, unforeseen obstacles emerge – and the initial positive emotional tone drops. As you get towards the end, when you’ve worked through the problems and the finish line is in sight, spirits rise again. These three phases are labeled Hope, Insight, and Confidence.

On Asking Questions in Rehearsal

At last year’s A Cappella Spring Fest I ran a session for choir members about how to get the most out of rehearsals. It was partly about how to prepare for and review rehearsals in between to consolidate, but also about things you can do during the rehearsal itself. One specific item we covered was about asking questions in rehearsal – when and how to do it. I’m coming back to write about this now because I’ve had several conversations about it recently and so it seems a good moment to share those discussions.

From a director’s perspective, questions from choir members are a mixed blessing. On one hand they give you really clear information about the singers’ needs, and how the whole process is being experienced from within the ensemble. This is information we want and need. On the other hand, they slow the rehearsal down by increasing the talk:music ratio, and their timing often distracts the whole choir from the rehearsal focus of the moment.

So, the question is: how do we gather that vital information without breaking the flow of the rehearsal?

Working with the Munich Show Chorus Music Team

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After the Barbershop Musikfestival last weekend, we stayed on in Munich for a couple of days so that I could do an evening’s music team training with the world champion mixed chorus on their next Tuesday rehearsal. Of course, when we made the arrangements to do this, they were merely the Munich Show Chorus, but I think they could get to like their new accolade.

Three days after contest is not your orthodox moment to bring in an external coach, but they had devised an imaginative way to use my availability in the city combined with starting a new repertoire project for a concert in the summer.

Bright Spots Coaching

One of the many useful bits of advice in Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch was, to use their terminology, ‘find the bright spots’. Rather than focusing on the problem we need to solve, they suggest, it can be much more effective to identify where things are going well and replicate that behaviour.

It is a simple idea, and thus easy to implement immediately, but it also has depth to it – the more you think about it, the more it offers. Which is why I’m writing about it – to tease out some of its ramifications, and to work out how they can help us in the choral rehearsal.

The morning after I read this bit of the book, I saw Mareike Buck use the technique beautifully in her warm-up with The Rhubarbs in Bonn. She remarked that one particular chorus member was using a gestural technique they were clearly familiar with to aid vocal production. That person looked pleased to have the compliment, and everyone else joined in the gesture.

Switch: Chip and Dan Heath on Behavioural Change

SwitchSwitch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard is a book I picked up on impulse when I was buying another book by the same authors recommended by a friend. I ended up reading this one first for the simple reason it was a bit smaller and lighter and would fit in my handbag on a trip I took just after it arrived.

I’ve read and enjoyed (and indeed blogged about) ideas by Chip and Dan Heath before, and this book is similarly helpful, practical and cheerfully written. Their strength is in synthesis – bringing together ideas from other authors and presenting them in ways that are memorable and usable. So, the cast of sources they cite includes names already familiar to regular readers here, such as Kotter and Dweck, but I’d say the Heaths still add value in the clarity with which they put together their advice.

It’s almost as if they’ve read their own previous work on what makes ideas sticky.

On Patience and Living with Imperfection

As an arranger, for most of the time you spend with a piece it doesn’t sound any good. When asked how I’m getting on with a chart, I have two regular responses: at an early stage, ‘Just at the wtf do I do with this then? stage – so, making good progress,’ and, later on, ‘It sounds terrible – so, going to plan.’

The first of these stages is where you make the big strategic decisions about how the music is going to go. And often it’s in solving the intractable technical or artistic problems a particular project presents that you make your most unexpected creative decisions. So whilst this bit can be daunting, it doesn’t yet sound bad because you’ve not put enough music together to sound really poor yet.

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