Remote Rehearsing for a Time of Social Distancing

From this week, the Telfordaires are moving to remote working for our weekly club night. We made this decision, first, for the obvious public health reasons. Well, I say obvious, but apparently not so very obvious to the UK government, who seem happy to ignore WHO recommendations. But even if our decision is over-cautious, the second reason still remains. [Edit: a few hours after I published this, the UK advice got more sensible. I think it was modelers at Imperial College rather than this post they were responding to though...]

The position that many groups have proposed of, ‘We’ll go ahead but if you feel at risk, stay away, while we continue with the nice things,’ seems to me rather unkind to those already disadvantaged by circumstance. We wanted to find a way for us all to have the nice things, including those chorus members with specific risk factors and/or family members to protect.

The two main reasons I have seen for continuing choir rehearsals in the face of COVID19 are, first, because cancellation devastates the incomes of freelance choral leaders, and, second, because a choir is such an important social/emotional support for its members. Moving to remote working rather than cancelling addresses both of these, and the second in particular has significantly influenced my thinking about quite how to approach this. (Hat-tip at this point to Elizabeth Davies for telling me to read Daniel Coyle's The Culture Code some time back. I've been thinking a lot about it recently for a different project, and it has also proven very useful for this one.)

Thoughts on Performance and Skill-Development

Over the autumn and winter I found myself teaching two courses designed to bring relative novices up to a decent foundational level of skill. One was the Initial conducting course for the Association of British Choral Directors that took place on four Saturdays in Newcastle between October and February. The other was the Learn to Sing in Harmony course hosted by the Telfordaires for 90 minutes each week on our first six rehearsals of the new year.

I found myself having the same conversation with more than one person on each of these courses, where they would remark that they had practised at home and were confident they could do a particular musical task, but when came to the next session it suddenly became much harder. In the former case, it was about how the beat patterns for 2, 3 and 4 seem simple until you add other things them like cueing, or indeed listening to the singers you are leading at the same time. In the latter, it was about how you can sing your part perfectly well by yourself, but it becomes a lot harder when you add the other three parts into the mix.

The Telfordaires Feedback Protocol

This post started out as a document to share with participants on the Telfordaires’ Learn to Sing in Harmony Course, which runs until mid-February 2020. When I was trying to decide whether to distribute it as an attachment to our weekly email of follow-up resources or as a link to a shared drive where we have some other learning materials, I realised that in fact a link to a blog post would be easier than either. And there’s nothing here that we don’t mind sharing with the rest of the singing world, so why not be generous with our ideas?

During the rehearsal process, we like to make opportunities for singers to listen all or part of the chorus and give feedback on what they've heard. One situation for this is the activity from Week 3 of the course we call 'voicework', where we break down the music into individual sections and duets to focus on how people are using their voices. Another is coming up in Week 4, where we'll use internal coaches to rehearse the whole group singing together. (‘Internal coaches’ are coaches from within the chorus, as opposed to bringing in external experts to coach us as we do a couple of times a year.)

In all cases, the idea of sharing round the opportunity to give feedback is that every person who participates in singing harmony comes with a lifetime’s experience and insight from their enjoyment of music, and these responses can help us all grow as musicians and performers. You learn different things by standing out and thinking about what the music needs than you do from inside it singing, and we all learn different things from hearing different people's perspectives.

On Para-musical Performance Instructions, and Implicit Shaping

By ‘para-musical’ I mean all those annotations around musical notation that tell you how, as opposed to what, to play or sing. Dynamics, articulation, descriptive words - often in Italian, though Satie had a nice line in metaphors in his native French. This post emerges from helping an arranger recently who was working on a saxophone quartet: the question emerged of just how much of this stuff is needed?

The answer that emerged as generalisable for all musical contexts was: use what looks like a normal amount for the genre you’re working in. You do this by going at looking at other music that the ensemble routinely plays. Norms can vary enormously. Some orchestral scores, especially since the mid-20th-century, micromanage almost every note, whilst barbershop, like baroque music, rarely includes any. It’s not, as I have seen claimed in some undergraduate essays, that they didn’t do expressive shaping in the C17th, it’s just that it was assumed that anyone with sufficient skill to read the notes would have enough nous to figure out what to do with them.

On Challenge Level, Teamwork and Locus of Control

Hello, I'm back! I've not yet delivered the second paper I needed to prepare this autumn (coming up this weekend), but I've finished writing it, and so I have space to start blogging again. It has been interesting to focus on some longer-form writing again for a change, but I'm looking forward to getting back to processing learning experiences as they happen. My notebooks all feel like they have indigestion!

I have been having a lot of interesting conversations in recent weeks about locus of control, and specifically how to help choral singers experience a sense of autonomy, rather than just being acted upon by the conductor’s authority. Some of these conversations were ones I started as part of my keynote presentation at the Hands-On Choral Symposium in Aveiro at the start of November, but others have just popped up in the course of making music with others.

Abcd Research Developments, Part 2

Having contemplated some broad themes in my previous post about the research strand at the recent abcd Choral Leaders Festival, I’d like to pick out a few interesting cross-references between the papers. There were four speakers reporting on projects undertaken for advanced degrees in the strand sessions, plus the plenary keynote presented by Dr Katie Overy, all of which addressed topics that would make choral practitioners say, ‘Ooh yes, we want to know about that!’

But it’s in the resonances between them that you really feel the value of a event like this, rather than just reading their findings as published articles. Not that I object to reading articles, you understand. The published format offers other strengths – the opportunity for the author to cover more detail, and for the reader to take time to think about things en route. But it doesn’t offer the same kind of creative opportunities as a live event, where the ways in which the papers bounce off each other spark insights beyond what they each offer individually.

So, here are the things that I came away wanting to think about further:

Soapbox: On the Value of Downtime in Rehearsal

soapboxThis post is inspired by a recent conversation about what different choral groups do by way of a tea break (or not) during an evening rehearsal. I have framed my post as one where I climb up on my platform for being opinionated, but I should let you know that the dialogue it emerges from was anything but contentious. Just a bunch of people saying, ‘We rehearse from this time to that time, and this is what we do by way of a break’.

We all found it helpful and interesting to see the range of options available. I particularly liked the one where they had drinks available for the half hour they had the hall before rehearsal started so that those who wanted to come early could socialise. It seemed a good way of balancing the needs of those who value a cuppa and chat and the task-focused shy people who would rather be singing.

Playing with the Icicle 7th

click on the pic to see it biggerclick on the pic to see it biggerAt the Telfordaires we recently spent a chunk of rehearsal exploring the sonority of the Icicle 7th. And since I had in the process ended up with a nice picture of it, I thought I’d share it with you as well. The original picture I drew of this on our flipchart in rehearsal wasn’t either as neat or as colourful as this, but since I forgot to take a photo of it for our weekly notes, I had to recreate it at home, and took the opportunity to spiffy it up a bit.

So, we started out by singing a normal barbershop 7th. (That’s a dominant-type 7th for normal musicians; we let you use them, because we like to share, but know that they’re ours.) Basses on root, baris on the 3rd, leads on the 5th, tenors on the 7th.

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