Fascinating Rhythm and New Music

FRjun18

On a glorious sunny Thursday evening, you could have had a really fun evening in Bristol watching the England and New Zealand women’s cricket teams play a 20-20 match. Or, you could have gone just a little north of the city as I did and had a fabulous evening making music with a different set of skilled and dedicated women.

Fascinating Rhythm are preparing to bring a package of two newly-commissioned arrangements to the LABBS Convention in the autumn for the fourth consecutive year. Yes, you read that right: we were working on the 7th and 8th new arrangements that they will be bringing to the contest stage since 2015. Up-for-itness doesn’t even being to describe their attitude.

Growth, Stagnation, and Affection

When I wrote recently about my theory of affection, I had in the back of my mind a particular application in the relationship between choir and director. I was thinking about how, if a conductor expresses frustration with their choir’s progress (or, rather, the lack thereof), you know that unless they find a way out of that place, their tenure with the choir is likely not to last.

It’s a common enough problem – all choirs go through phases of rapid development and of treading water or even retrenchment as their individual and collective circumstances change over time. And part of a choral director’s resilience is weathering the patches when everything stalls with enough patience to get through to when it all picks up again.

But thinking about the conductor-choir bond in terms of affection shed some new light on it for me. If, as I suggest, affection the results when someone lets you make a difference to them, then there is a particular danger when a director feels they are unable to make a difference: they will start to care less.

My Theory of Affection

When musicians see the phrase ‘theory of affection’ their thoughts turn to 17th-century concepts of mimesis and the portrayal of emotion in music. But, interesting as that is, my purpose today is wider than the period-specific world of Affektenlehre, concerning instead the general human question of what makes us feel fondness.

It’s something I’ve thought about blogging on for many years, but there was always something that seemed more of the moment. I have been piqued into at last by reading something that for a moment looked like it was going to articulate my personal theory in more formal terms, but which in fact turned out to be a near miss.

Chip and Dan Heath report on the work of Harry T. Reis, a social psychologist who aspired to create a universal theory of relationships. He placed responsiveness at the heart of what creates interpersonal bonds, and outlined three ways in which this works:

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

FRmusteam

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.

Coaching the Chordettes

Warm-up action shot: shared rhythmWarm-up action shot: shared rhythm

Saturday took me down to Devon to coach the Chordettes. Last time I worked with them I drove down there in my Vauxhall Corsa, and I replaced that car in early 2005, so it’s been a while. I can still remember the laugh we had about post-vocalic Rs, though, such being the kind of thing that stays with you forever.

Most of our work for the day was on the material they are preparing for LABBS Convention in October, including a ballad that I’ve not previously heard on the LABBS contest stage. I’ve not heard every contest performance of the last 20 years, but I’ve heard a reasonably high proportion, so even if it’s not a premiere I can confidently say it’s rare enough to be worth listening out for.

BABS Convention 2018

Momentum Chorus: photo credit - BABSMomentum Chorus: photo credit - BABS

The three major talking points for the final weekend in May this year were the Ireland’s repeal of the 8th amendment, Momentum’s astonishing performance in the mixed barbershop chorus contest, and the glitzy yet ill-designed refurbishment of the toilets in Harrogate International Centre. Of the three, only the second is strictly relevant for this blog, and the other two I’m sure are covered more thoroughly elsewhere anyway.

If you’ve seen the contest scores, you’ll already know that Momentum’s performance was better than anything we saw in the World Mixed Voice competition in Munich the previous month, though in my view the scores don’t show quite how much better. I’d like to hear them in a head-to-head with Heavy Medal, as I think they could give them a run for their money.

Shaping Lines with Silver Lining

Action shot from the warm-upAction shot from the warm-up

To complete my hat trick of coaching adventures last weekend, I headed off to Coventry on Sunday to work with Silver Lining. They are also preparing new music for LABBS Convention in the autumn, but this time I had the pleasure of getting my teeth into other people’s arrangements. It’s fun coaching my own charts, but you learn different things working with music that comes from someone else’s perspective and experience.

Their new ballad is one of those songs that looks simple on paper: a clear arc of melody without tricksy stuff, supported by intuitive harmonies and no more embellishment than is needed. In practice, this places considerable demands on both the breath and the interpretive mind to sustain the phrases - there is absolutely nowhere to hide. Fortunately, the technical dimension was well in hand, allowing us to focus on the artistic challenges.

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