Mo Field on the Needs of an Audience

One of the many things that ended up in my notebook under the heading ‘To think about later’ from LABBS Harmony College back in April was something guest educator Mo Field said about what an audience is looking for in performers. It now appears to be later, and my brain is ready to think about it.

In summary, the three things she listed were:

1. Is this competent? (Can they trust your skill-set?)
2. Can they believe you? (Are you saying something that matters to you?)
3. Is it relatable? (Are you saying anything that matters to them?)

The first thing to note is that these are both sequential and hierarchical. Until the listener is reassured that they’re safe in your hands from the perspective of your capacity to operate your instrument/ensemble, they’re not going to have any attention to give to the content of what you do. Assuming you are indeed competent, they’ll move on pretty much immediately to engage with your content.

Practice Gadgets as Feedback Tools

The term ‘practice gadget’ is one coined by Daniel Coyle to refer to tactics people use to selectively increase the challenge of what they are working on. The archetypal example would be the way that the popular game of futsal trained up a generation of Brazilian football players, documented in his first book. Working on a smaller scale than soccer, and using a ball with significantly less bounce, futsal makes players work harder at ball-handling and team interaction, leading to a level of virtuosity that the larger, outdoor version of the game rarely fosters.

There is another dimension to the practice gadgets though, not just the amplification of challenge: they provide a feedback-rich experience. The physical interface with the activity talks back to you with a constant stream of information about how you’re getting on.

The Path Through the Trees

Today I am going to mull on an intriguing bit of advice Mo Field offered at LABBS Harmony College in April. She suggested that chorus directors show their singers ‘the path through the trees’. By this she meant that instead of focusing on the percussive events (the trees), we should give attention to the overall line of the music.

Now, traditional conducting technique is all about clarity - the director’s primary task is to keep everyone unambiguously together. Leonard Bernstein talked about this role as ‘glorified traffic cop’; I have been known to refer to it as the ‘sheepdog function’. On the face of it Mo’s advice would seem to directly contradict this received wisdom.

Another Anniversary

Ten years ago today was my last day as a full-time university lecturer. Which means I’ve been freelancing for as long as I worked at Birmingham Conservatoire. Where did all that time go? Well, we can answer that as I’ve blogged about a lot of it on the way past. I’ve spent most of it working with singers and conductors, as arranger, coach and mentor, helping them do their thing with greater confidence, skill and joy.

When I left academia, I was often asked whether I saw myself going back. To which the answer was that I didn’t know. Ten years previously I hadn’t imagined going freelance, so I really couldn’t predict how I’d feel ten years on. Now that ten years has passed, I discover that I can’t imagine myself stepping back into full-time institutional life.

Adapting to Context on the abcd Conducting Skills Day

The group's analysis of the conductor's rolesThe group's analysis of the conductor's roles

Last Saturday gave me the treat of working in my home city, leading a Basic Conducting Skills day on behalf of the Association of British Choral Directors. I love events like these; the participants are always so engaged and dedicated to their singers, and so supportive to each other as they learn together. And they always come with such great questions, straight from coalface of practical problem-solving.

One of the things I found interesting about these questions was the way the answer so often included the caveat that best choice often depends on the context. The size of choir, the genre expectations and musical habits that come from them, the needs of that particular collective of singers. The decision about how to proceed then becomes a matter of figuring out the range of possibilities, and locating your particular circumstances within it.

Here are some of the subjects they raised:

Musicking with the White Rosettes


This may prove to be a tricky post to write. Not for any emotional complications – it tells of an entirely cheerful and purposeful occasion – nor for conceptual conundrums – we all knew what we were doing and we did it well. The problem is the entirely practical one of how do I write an account of a coaching session that was pretty much entirely about specific musical detail without actually talking about the music?

I run into this problem to an extent every time I go to coach an ensemble on a new arrangement that they will want to reveal at some point in the future, but there’s usually some generalisable technical points to distract you with while I’m avoiding naming the song. Is vagueblogging a thing?

And of course it would be unthinkable to go and work with the UK’s most consistently successful barbershop chorus and not blog about it. That would be silly.

Myelinating with Mo

The recent LABBS Harmony College brought lots of interesting resonances with the blog post I had scheduled to come out the day after I got home from it. This is not entirely a coincidence of course – at the time I was writing about practice processes and shunting between local and global, I was also refining my notes for a session on rehearsal techniques that focused on Daniel Coyle’s Talent Code, and its accounts of how we acquire skills.

But our guest educator Mo Field also gave us a lot to enrich that understanding. Her coaching under glass session with Soundhouse and Avalon quartets on Saturday evening was a masterclass in myelination. She took very little time before she started to delve deep, paring down to two singers each on a single note and spending a long time there before building up to four singers and three or notes at a go. Then when she pulled the camera back to take in wider stretches of music, the singers were able to continue accessing the new paths they had gone down as they had spent long enough there to get them at least partly established.

Continuing the Journey with Norwich Harmony

Obligatory warm-up action picObligatory warm-up action pic

One of the joyful things about being invited to work with a group several times over the course of a few years is the opportunity to see them develop. I have visited Norwich Harmony in late Spring or early summer before, but I don’t recall hearing them sounding so assured on the music they are preparing for the autumn at this stage previously. It wasn’t just that the singing was clean and resonant, with very few details getting smudged, it was that everyone seemed up-for-it and undaunted by any challenge I threw at them. This is a very satisfying way to spend a Saturday.

I asked their director Alison Thompson to what she could attribute this upgrade in achievement, and she talked through various areas of specific technical skill they had been working on. Behind this, though, were more fundamental points: having the confidence that she had found an approach that would work for them, and being relentless in her pursuit of them.

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