March 2018

Exploring Breath and Emotion with The Venus Effect


On Friday night I finally got to have the coaching session with The Venus Effect that we had had to cancel for snow three weeks earlier. It was the first time I’d heard them since our session just before I disappeared to Australia and I was looking forward to hearing what they’d done with the techniques for unit sound we’d worked on then.

It turns out that regular technical work makes a difference. Who knew?

We spent part of the session extending this work. In exercises we played with alternating adjacent vowels on a unison to hear the shifting overtones. This translates in repertoire to the experience of harmonically static passages where the colours shift with the different vowels sounds of the lyric. It was notable both that it was very clear which songs had already been subject to this kind of close-listening and which hadn’t, and how much more fluently the quartet achieved good results when applying them to new repertoire than four months ago.

On Unlearning and Relearning Songs

This post is for anyone who has ever learned one part in a song, and then switched to another part at a later date. Learning the new part is one challenge, not getting distracted back onto singing your original part is another one.

I was asked if had any advice on this recently, and I realised that it’s something I have done a good deal, and rarely get the different parts tangled up in my head. So I’m writing this post to work out what strategies I have used to do this, or indeed what strategies I might have wanted to use had I found it harder than I did. I have three main suggestions so far.

Bright Spots Coaching

One of the many useful bits of advice in Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch was, to use their terminology, ‘find the bright spots’. Rather than focusing on the problem we need to solve, they suggest, it can be much more effective to identify where things are going well and replicate that behaviour.

It is a simple idea, and thus easy to implement immediately, but it also has depth to it – the more you think about it, the more it offers. Which is why I’m writing about it – to tease out some of its ramifications, and to work out how they can help us in the choral rehearsal.

The morning after I read this bit of the book, I saw Mareike Buck use the technique beautifully in her warm-up with The Rhubarbs in Bonn. She remarked that one particular chorus member was using a gestural technique they were clearly familiar with to aid vocal production. That person looked pleased to have the compliment, and everyone else joined in the gesture.

Switch: Chip and Dan Heath on Behavioural Change

SwitchSwitch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard is a book I picked up on impulse when I was buying another book by the same authors recommended by a friend. I ended up reading this one first for the simple reason it was a bit smaller and lighter and would fit in my handbag on a trip I took just after it arrived.

I’ve read and enjoyed (and indeed blogged about) ideas by Chip and Dan Heath before, and this book is similarly helpful, practical and cheerfully written. Their strength is in synthesis – bringing together ideas from other authors and presenting them in ways that are memorable and usable. So, the cast of sources they cite includes names already familiar to regular readers here, such as Kotter and Dweck, but I’d say the Heaths still add value in the clarity with which they put together their advice.

It’s almost as if they’ve read their own previous work on what makes ideas sticky.

On Patience and Living with Imperfection

As an arranger, for most of the time you spend with a piece it doesn’t sound any good. When asked how I’m getting on with a chart, I have two regular responses: at an early stage, ‘Just at the wtf do I do with this then? stage – so, making good progress,’ and, later on, ‘It sounds terrible – so, going to plan.’

The first of these stages is where you make the big strategic decisions about how the music is going to go. And often it’s in solving the intractable technical or artistic problems a particular project presents that you make your most unexpected creative decisions. So whilst this bit can be daunting, it doesn’t yet sound bad because you’ve not put enough music together to sound really poor yet.

Explorations in Musical Shape with Cheshire Chord Company


After a series of cancellations on Thursday, Friday and Saturday last week due to weather-related travel disruptions, I was delighted finally to be able to fulfil a coaching commitment on Sunday. My friends at Cheshire Chord Company had invited me back to work through a couple of songs they are currently learning.

We spent the morning on barbershop swing standard ‘That’s Life’. This is a classic chart that always comes over enjoyably in performance, but is often quite generalised in its expression. There is, we discovered, a good deal more scope than you might have guessed both for creating a large-scale arc and for finding nuance in the detail.

How Conductors Create Incompetence in their Singers

Last autumn I had the opportunity to read a fascinating dissertation on choral singing in Oxford colleges by Emma Hall. (She has since blogged about some of her conclusions here.) It was a rich and nuanced piece of work, with lots to teach us, and there was one finding that really caught my attention for its implications for all choral practitioners.

This was the dynamic whereby conductors tend to correct sopranos more often than the other parts, giving both the sopranos themselves and the rest of the choir the impression that they need more correction, that they make more mistakes, thus both drawing on and reinforcing the stereotype of sopranos as the least competent voice part.

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