April 2019

The Robot/Human Dialectic

There’s an exercise I like to do with ensembles in which they toggle between singing as if they were a robot and as if they were a human being. It’s interesting because you think before you start that it’s primarily about expressiveness – turning both vocal and facial empathy for the music on and off. Which it is, but it also turns out to be about technical control. The robot mode typically displays not only a more angular rather than flowing sense of shape, but also much cleaner synchronisation of rhythm and word sounds. You lose something by turning off your humanity, but you gain something too.

I recently had a conversation with an individual singer about managing his relationship with these two states. He generally gives his primary focus to accuracy (an attitude that you have to like), but feels this can result in a robotic delivery: ‘I don’t think I know how to sing a melody like a Lead, while still doing all the stuff on placement, timing etc,’ he said.

Resistance is Useful

I have written before about Mark Forster’s helpful approaches to overcoming the struggles that lie at the heart of procrastination. Indeed, when I went back to see what I said last time I reflected on them I found quite a few of the ideas I thought I had just had when mulling over this post. Ahem.

Anyway, his key point bears repeating: that it’s rarely the outer game of time-management that is the problem, but the inner game of just not wanting to get on with that right now. Or as he calls it, resistance.

The particularly astute bit of his analysis is that the strength of your resistance is often directly proportional to the importance of the task. Importance in this context is somewhat subjective – sometimes to do with scale (big jobs take a lot of oomph to start on because you know they’re going to take a lot effort to complete), sometimes with difficulty (it’s harder to get started when there are bits of the task you know you don’t yet know how to handle), and sometimes with emotional investment (if you care a lot about something you are tentative about screwing it up).

Atomic Quartet Coaching

AtomicI spent Monday afternoon until mid-afternoon on Tuesday with Atomic Quartet, who had come up from Cornwall for an intensive bout of coaching both as quartet and as individual singers. They had initially suggested doing PVIs (‘personal voice instruction’ for those unfamiliar with the acronym) on the Monday, followed by quartet coaching the next day, but I inflected this model into a more flexible approach that shifted between individual and ensemble work more fluidly.

I remembered the way that Rivka Golani taught viola at the Birmingham Conservatoire. All her students were entitled to a certain number of hours of one-to-one tuition as part of their course, but rather than seeing them one at a time, she used to have all of them together for one day a week, observing as she worked with each in turn. Her students spoke very positively of this experience, and I observed strong bonds of trust between them.

On Repetition

The French for rehearsal is ‘répétition’, which captures an interestingly different aspect of the process than the English term’s implications of ‘trial run’. Things need doing more than once to secure the combination of mental concept and motor actions we experience as ‘doing it right’.

But simply repeating things isn’t enough. It is easy to spend a lot of rehearsal time repeating the same errors and inadequacies you are already quite good at. Improving the music requires a change in behaviour.

This process of making changes, then routinising them is a recurring theme of this blog over the years. I’ve looked at it via Kotter’s model of organisation change, through the Dilts Pyramid, and most directly through my model of the Intervention and Enforcement Cycles (which itself crystallised in the wake of reading Doug Lemov’s ideas on effective classroom habits). Oh, and then with additions from Chip and Dan Heath last year.

Compiling a Not-To-Do List at Avon Harmony

Traditional warm-up action shotTraditional warm-up action shotThursday evening took me down to my friends at Avon Harmony to spend an evening working with their director, Mary Williams, on her conducting gesture. Mary has been in post about 15 months, and having got settled in building her working relationships with the chorus, is ready to give some headspace to her own technique. Specifically, she had asked me to help with clarity, removing the ‘noise’ from her gesture.

This is something that many if not most directors come back to time and again on their journey. I am a recovering over-director myself – mostly successfully so, but the temptation is always there if I relax my vigilance – so come to this with both great sympathy and some useful strategies to help.

Slump Week: How to recognise it, and how to cope with it.

Attention span graphAttention span graphSome years ago I wrote about this graph of attention spans in the context of managing interest in a musical form. But the use I put it to more routinely is teaching people about planning rehearsals: understanding when you are likely to get the best and worst quality attention over the course of a rehearsal allows you to plan your activities to make the best use of the cognitive resources available.

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