Building Confidence at Brunel
Saturday took me back down to Saltash for a follow-up visit to my session with Brunel Harmony last month. With only three weeks to go before Convention, the agenda was one of polishing the performance, and building confidence. One of the first confidence-inducing things to note was that I could hear that they had taken on what we had worked on last time and really embraced them. Bubbling had greater stamina, and the characterisation was embedded in both vocal colour and body language.
We balanced our day between attention to detail and holistic work. The nearer you get to performance, the less you really want to get the Manager on duty, so it’s not the point in the cycle to focus on technique. But where there are details that are getting away - the odd chord that isn’t locking, the odd phrase that loses energy - then finding the means to bring them under control increases confidence as it removes distractions for the singers as well as for the audience.
Some of these details involved unpicking individual chords, and establishing the relationship between parts so they made sense to the ear; some of them involved tweaks to directing gesture. In both cases, the process of isolating and repeating a detail initially makes people slightly anxious (as it’s homing in on something they’ve never been entirely satisfied with). But when we find the adjustment that makes things work, the repetitions become increasingly pleasurable as people enjoy being able to deploy their skills at will.
One exercise we did ticked all kinds of useful boxes for increasing confidence, and I’ve been finding it useful to enumerate the various dimensions of its effectiveness. It involved dividing the chorus into two, and asking each half of the chorus to listen to and offer feedback to the other.
So, the first thing this did was raise the stakes for the singers left on the risers. Halving the size of the chorus at a stroke makes everyone feel more exposed, and gives them quite a spurt of adrenaline in the blood. And making friends with adrenaline is a useful thing to - when you get to a big performance, you will experience a significant dose of it, and if you’ve not practised performing your songs in that state, it could be quite unnerving. Knowing how it feels to sing when lit up is a valuable bit of preparation.
(Also: doing this exercise after lunch got us through the graveyard shift very effectively.)
And then of course, everyone suddenly discovers how well they can do with only half a chorus. It is a pleasant surprise to realise you sound really quite good with only half the number of singers, and it is emotionally rewarding to see how pleased your friends who are listening look when you do so. Seeing people look happy when you sing to them is a most encouraging form of positive reinforcement.
We asked for feedback using the protocol of, ‘What did you like?’ and ‘What would you like to add, develop, or improve?’ and this phase of the exercise served as a means to reinforce all those things that the singers could do, but didn’t always. It gets a bit dull hearing your director or coach saying the same thing over and over again, but instructions do need repeating if the skills are to be embedded. Getting different people to give the feedback offers a welcome bit of variety.
Finally, the act of watching and framing feedback is an important learning activity in itself. Seeing and hearing the difference it makes when you apply a skill consistently - versus when it comes and goes - informs how you yourself sing when it is your turn to get back on the risers.