Road-Map Back to Choral Normality

Get a cuppa, this one is longer than usual.

With the news that we have multiple effective vaccines for Covid19, it is time to start envisaging how their protection will allow choirs to come back to something approaching normal. It’s easy to see the Before scenario (where we are now), and the After scenario (rehearsing and performing back in our regular venues, as we used to before March 2020). What is less easy is to envisage the process by which one becomes the other.

This post is intended to think through at least some of the questions our new situation poses. I’m writing with an eye for the specific circumstances of my chorus, but also with an awareness of the range of circumstances other groups find themselves in. The variables, and thus the answers people come to, will differ between choirs, but many of the types of variable we need to consider will be common across us all.

Zooming in with The Rhubarbs

Screenshot or it didn't happen...Screenshot or it didn't happen...My last international coaching trip early in 2020 was over to Bonn to work with The Rhubarbs and their quartet, Note-4-Note. Coronavirus was in the news by then, and we compared notes about how it was regarded in the Germany versus the UK, but I don’t think we could yet imagine the impact it was going to have on us all. Whilst it is always heart-warming to see the faces of people you’re fond of over Zoom, these memories gave a little extra emotional resonance to my visit to the chorus on Tuesday evening.

Until quite recently, they had been able to meet to rehearse, and so are in the early days of their Zoom experience. So far they had largely used the platform to stay in touch rather than for musical activity, but since they’d invited me I suggested we could do some singing games while we were at it.

Changing Choral Culture in a Time of Covid

Last week I received a message from a reader with a number of wide-ranging questions:

Have you already (that I missed) posted something about the changing culture, changing expectations of singers as a result of our individual COVID experiences? Thoughts about what new/different things that directors should do, music teams should plan, individual singer behaviors that will change, etc.? I would be interested in your thoughts in some of these areas.

Looking back over my postings over the months since March, I could see that I’d wandered near these themes a number of times (for instance here, here, and here), but there was clearly a lot more in his questions than these posts covered. So I promised to have a mull and if I had further ideas to blog about them.

On Getting Stuck, and Unstuck Again

This is a theme that anyway who reflects on creative practice will need to visit and revisit periodically over the years. It’s been a while since I’ve reflected on it, and going back to see what my past self had to offer, I find it still valid, but a bit tangential to the hurdles I have been encountering this autumn. Today we are going to explore the place where stuckness intersects with apathy.

One of the things I learned early in my life as a researcher was that when writing is hard, it is usually because you’ve not yet done enough thinking (and also possibly reading). Analogously, when arranging is hard, you’ve not done enough noodling about (and also possibly listening).

When you realise that this is the issue, there’s no point beating up on yourself for having started without having fully prepared, because in fact you often need to have started to discover the exact nature of the preparation you needed. You think you know what direction you’re headed, but it’s the process of getting stuck that identifies the specificity of the groundwork you need and thus guides your return to thinking/noodling. The material needs the chance to talk back to you.

On Singing Solo Safely

On Saturday I led a webinar for the Association of British Choral Directors on Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code and its implications for choral rehearsals, during which we considered how they apply both in traditional face-to-face rehearsals, and in online sessions. I always find the combined wisdom and experience of a collection of choral directors a highly enriching environment, and never fail to come out with more ideas to reflect on than I went in with.

On this occasion, there were a number of related conversations about how the exigencies of remote rehearsing put people on the line for singing by themselves. On the whole, people join choirs to sing with other people, and for many, losing the envelope of sound around them has not only taken away a fundamental aural/visceral pleasure, but has stripped away their safety net.

Now, whilst pushing people out of their comfort zones is vital for learning (and indeed Coyle has written about this in his earlier work on developing advanced skill), you need to build a safe space in which to do that, or else you risk people heading straight from their comfort zones into the panic zone without finding the learning zone en route.

LABBS Chorus Day: Reflections on Style and Emotional Experience


One of my premieres for the weekend that exemplifies cheerful diatonicism

One of the things we saw coming with the LABBS Big Weekend was how, freed from the constraints of contest rules, choruses took the opportunity to share all kinds of repertoire we’d never hear on a contest stage. At a personal level, this gave me the opportunity to hear a bunch of arrangements I’d had commissioned last year that I might not otherwise have had the chance to hear at all. There was even one chart that was commissioned several years ago but that I had never heard before.

What I hadn’t anticipated was coming to the end of the day feeling that the musical diet we’d been treated to was less varied than I had expected. For sure there were lots of songs we wouldn’t normally get to hear at Convention, but in the event that also entailed hearing a lot more primarily diatonic music than usual.

LABBS Quartet Day and the Subversion of Performativity

Elena from Sonic gives the executive summary of this postElena from Sonic gives the executive summary of this postFancy title, eh? This is what happens when a familiar event takes on an unfamiliar form: you learn all kinds of things about your ‘normal’ experience that might not have come into focus without the contrast. And sometimes the things you learn inspire the use of poncy words to articulate them.

The familiar event in this case is the quartet day at the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers convention. In a normal year, this would involve both the semi-finals and finals of the quartet contest, featuring those ensembles who had qualified to compete at a Preliminary event back in June that combines elements both of contest and of coaching. This year it was replaced by an invitation for all quartets registered with LABBS to submit a video of up to 5 minutes; and almost 40 quartets ended up contributing.

A Weekend with the LABBS Family

I have spent every last weekend in October since 1997 at the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers Convention. In the year when everything was cancelled, through the vision and dedication of the LABBS Social Media team, that generalisation remains true. We were treated to the entire three-day event online: the opportunity for all member quartets and choruses to share what they had been working on, all-star shows, communal singing, the presentation of awards, the lot. We even had times when Fringe education events clashed with the main stream, only this time you only had to choose which to watch live and which on catch-up, not which to miss.

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