Miscellanous Thoughts from Holland Harmony College

This is another of those posts where I ruminate on the observations that collect in my notebook over a stimulating weekend, this time from my adventures with Holland Harmony. Many of these, I discover now I try to organise them, are about making connections between things I had already been aware of in ways which illuminate both.

Miscellaneous Observations from BinG! Harmony College

Cy Wood in actionCy Wood in actionAs I reported earlier in the month, I had a stupendously enriching time with the good people of Barbershop in Germany at their Harmony College. Having done all the big-picture reflections when I first came home, I find my notebook has a pile of interesting observations, none of which is big enough to blog about in themselves, but all of which are too useful not to share.

So here is a pleasant miscellany of observations of things I found stimulating. Mostly, I see now I write them up, because they were specific instances of general principles I have been writing about over the last couple of years. Always good to see something you theorise about played out in real life.

Choice Theory for Choral Directors 3: The Rehearsal as Solving Circle

GlasserThe Solving Circle is a technique that William Glasser developed in his work as a relationship counsellor. It is designed to get people out of that impasse where they are both complaining about each other’s behaviours and throwing blame about for the ill-feeling generated by their attempts to control each other. I am interested to see if it offers a useful model through which to conceptualise the choral rehearsal.

The principle of the Solving Circle is to create a space for the safe negotiation of differences. In Glasser’s formulation of marital therapy, there are three entities within the circle: the two spouses and the marriage itself. The ground rule for stepping into the circle is that, whilst you may each have strongly-held positions based on your individual needs, by stepping into the circle you agree that the marriage takes precedence over those individual needs.

Choice Theory for Choral Directors

GlasserI recently read William Glasser’s book Choice Theory at the suggestion of a friend, and it has been a thought-provoking exercise. There is a good deal in the book that is open to critique - to the extent that if I didn’t trust the judgement of the person who recommended it, I may not have bothered to finish it - but there is also a good deal of humane and sensible advice in it.

So, I’m glad I did persist with it, and I’m prepared likewise to cautiously recommend it in turn, with the caveat that you need to be able to cope with an argument that quite often overstates its case and makes unsubstantiated (indeed, unsubstantiatable) assertions. If you’re not sure you want to cope with that kind of thing, here’s a summary of what I learned from it...

(Rehearsal) Planning for the Unknown

During the abcd Initial Conducting Course I led earlier this year, I had several conversations with conductors about how to manage rehearsal planning in the particular circumstance that you don’t yet know the much about the choir you’re planning for. How do you work out what will be appropriate repertoire when you don’t yet know the skills and experience of the singers you will be working with?

This is a circumstance that can affect anyone who is lined up with a conducting job they’ve not yet started, but it is felt most strongly in early career musicians who don’t yet have a fund of previous similar experiences to draw on.

So, the first thing is to do what profiling you can. For those moving to new teaching jobs, the age of the children you will be working with gives you quite a lot of information about what to expect, and you can also glean a good deal from what kind of repertoire your predecessor was using with them. If they have any recordings of recent performances, this will also tell you a lot.

Music-Team Training at Junction 14

jcn14musteamI spent Saturday with the Music Team from Junction 14 chorus, delivering a bespoke workshop that touched on all three of the themes I offer for this kind of training, but with its main emphasis on Effective Rehearsal Skills. The team has welcomed two new section leaders into their posts within the last few months, so it was a good moment both to offer support to the less experienced members and to help the whole team feel more integrated as a unit.

One of the areas the team had identified in advance as something they’d like help with was knowing what to listen for in section rehearsals, and their director Hannah had suggested a checklist of target issues might be useful. It took very little time for the combined brains of the team to compile a healthy collection of things they could usefully attend to, and we then went through each systematically identifying what would be the compliment you’d give if you heard it being done well and what would be the to-do you’d ask for if it needed improving.

A More Helpful Post About Learning Tracks

Having been all grumpy at you again on the subject of teach tracks the other day, I thought it might be nice to make some positive suggestions about ways you can use them. The following three ideas are intended to preserve all the benefits that people identify whenever I go off on one of my grumps, whilst avoiding or at least mitigating the downsides I get grumpy about. These remarks are primarily aimed at the chorus director, but they will have some relevance also for individual singers, and indeed people for who make the tracks.

Do Your Prep Before Issuing the Tracks

If you put in the groundwork on the music before you let the singers loose on the tracks, you give yourself the opportunity to identify what the challenges are and put in the support your singers need before they spend three weeks practising all the obvious mistakes. If you wait to start your own prep until the singers start theirs, you won’t know what kind of messes they are likely to be getting themselves into until they are already well into those messes. Get ahead of them, and you can make sure they have the key skills they’ll for the song before they have to apply them.

Soapbox: Back on Teach Tracks

Before you read this: I know everyone will hate me by the end of this post. So I'd like you to know a more helpful one is coming up next time

I know, I know, I have something of a downer on the whole thing of learning tracks, we’ve been here before. Though actually it’s not so much the tracks themselves that I have an issue with - even I am not so churlish as to deny their various usefulnesses - but with the lazy and unhelpful habits they facilitate in people who should know better. Today my gripe is with arrangers and chorus directors who don’t bother to do their jobs properly and expect teach tracks to take up the slack.

The fundamental point (and I had better get this out before I annoy everyone too much!) is that parrot-fashion mimicry is not the same as learning. And that even accurate mimicry is not possible if your brain hasn’t grasped the meaning of what you’re copying. You know how it’s hard to catch someone’s name if they’re from a country whose language you’re not familiar with? It’s like that. ‘Learning the dots’ has to involve making sense of the music if it is to succeed, and this is no more guaranteed through listening than it is through reading. We sing what we understand, not what we hear; and if we don’t understand it, we make inferences that may or may not end up being valid in the context of the whole.

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