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A Dedication of Directors

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Director Faculty in actionDirector Faculty in action

There was some discussion after last Saturday’s education day for LABBS chorus directors as to what the collective noun for directors was. We had lots of good suggestions, but I am going with ‘a dedication’ for now because of the way our delegates embraced the preparation we had set for the practical activities with such commitment, resulting in one of the most musically in-depth experiences I have yet managed to orchestrate in a single day.

The coaching model we used was devised, in the first instance, to answer the question as to how to offer practical skills training to lots of people with the resources we had available, You can teach a discussion-based class to a room of 70 people and it works, but hands-on skills need individual attention. In the process, it also answered another question of practical training I have been grappling with – how to develop directors’ musicianship skills. You can communicate ideas in a day, but musicianship takes ongoing work to flourish.

The model was based on delegates being coached while directing each other in quartet, each swapping in to sing when they weren’t directing. To make this work, you need people to be flexible about singing different parts - but then again this should be part of your preparation to direct. You can tell people that they need to do this prep, but it turns out that when they are going to have to sing them out loud, they actually take you seriously and do it.

What this resulted in was not just some very useful hands-on directing coaching, but also months of deep musical work as everyone involved (faculty and delegates) learned music more thoroughly than they would normally do. You can tell people you learn different things by engaging with all voice parts vocally that you can’t learn just by studying them on paper, but it takes the experience of doing it to appreciate quite what the benefits are. So much high-quality learning had gone on before we even arrived.

And then, when we ran the model, it kept everyone deeply musically engaged. We were using only 22 bars of music, and in a 90-minute practical session that could get a bit dull. But if you switch to a different part every 12 minutes or so, you never get to lapse into auto-pilot. In Doug Lemov’s terms, the ratio of active engagement remains high throughout.

In all, we had 48 delegates (of 68 attendees) opt into coaching, which we delivered in 8 pods of 6 directors, half in the morning, half in the afternoon, with classes in parallel for those not in coaching. Each director got to direct once, watch once, and sing each part once within their pod.

The faculty also got together the night before to run the model. This was partly in preparation for using it for teaching, so we could all get our heads round it and discuss questions of logistics and policy. But it was also for our own benefit. We have some excellent and experienced directors in LABBS available to educate their peers, but they also need the chance to grow and develop. This was our chance to do some learning together, and, like the delegates, we got the benefit not only of each other’s coaching, but also of being stretched musically and vocally as we cycled through the parts.

We also ran the model as a demo for the delegates first thing Saturday. This was firstly so that everybody could see how it would work before they had to do it themselves. It also helped to activate the song in everyone’s head. But it was also to show that we were prepared to put ourselves on the line, that we weren’t asking anyone else to do something we weren’t willing to do too.

This was important because a good number of the delegates, especially the less experienced, found the prospect of singing all four parts in turn in quartet more than moderately daunting. I could, and did, establish house rules that the musicking was to be done in private, as a safe space, and that we should embrace mistakes as part of the process. But for that to become meaningful, you do need to see the people who will be running the sessions make mistakes, recover from them, laugh at themselves, and accept their own and each others’ imperfections.

The coaching model infused other activities during the day. Debi Cox took a short general warm-up, with the brief of getting the voices to sing throughout their full range – and she did this by having everyone engage with all four part functions too, preparing us musically as well as vocally. We also took the opportunity of having done the prep work to use the faculty as musical examples for a session on listening skills, modelling the kind of aural skills the director needs in rehearsal – picking out individual parts or notes, spotting errors. This was a good way to reward those who had prepared deeply – the better you know the music, the easier this stuff gets.

It also set up the final session of the day on building an emotionally resilient chorus. When I first devised the coaching model, it was with the needs of practical skill development in mind. But the risks it required us all to take, and thus the need to manage the emotional shape of the day fed very well into this theme. I’ll probably write about that in more depth another time (too late in this post to get into the detail), but we talked a creating a culture that avoided shaming people for errors, and that adopted a growth rather than fixed mindset. Having lived that culture in practice during the day made that theoretical message both more comprehensible and more believable.

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