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Working with the Munich Show Chorus Music Team

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After the Barbershop Musikfestival last weekend, we stayed on in Munich for a couple of days so that I could do an evening’s music team training with the world champion mixed chorus on their next Tuesday rehearsal. Of course, when we made the arrangements to do this, they were merely the Munich Show Chorus, but I think they could get to like their new accolade.

Three days after contest is not your orthodox moment to bring in an external coach, but they had devised an imaginative way to use my availability in the city combined with starting a new repertoire project for a concert in the summer.

I spent an hour before the rehearsal with the warm-up team and section leaders, discussing their development needs. We also had the chance to introduce some theoretical frameworks such as the essential elements of a warm-up and the intervention/enforcement cycles, to inform our work for the rest of the evening.

Once the main choir arrived, the plan was to take the usual elements of a rehearsal – warm-up, section practice – and stretch them out to allow for those leading them to receive coaching. After a warm-up of about double its usual length, and a run-through as a whole choir on the new song, one section at a time came into the main room to have their first rehearsal on it, with their leader(s) receiving coaching.

All the section leaders stayed together to observe each other for this, and were able to have a brief discussion after each section’s session to exchange impressions, ask questions, and for me to summarise for each the key things for them to focus on next. The three sections not being rehearsed were asked not to work on the new song together until after their coached session so that all leaders got the chance to be coached working on music new to their singers.

The format worked very well, and it was a great moment for this kind of investment in the team – beyond the time pressure of contest preparation, and using the recent success as a springboard into the next phase of development.

One theme that emerged in several contexts over the evening was use of language. In many cases, it was how to use less of it. When warming up singers who have worked together a good deal, you can do a lot of the physical warm-up without any verbal instruction at all, and it becomes both more pacey and more engaged thereby. You also increase pace and focus by reducing time spent on explanation and analysis and getting the singers singing again as soon as possible. In particular, a ragged or tentative start usually doesn’t need any comment other than, ‘Let’s do that again, it will be better.’

By coincidence, this dimension of our work resonates very well with my article in the March/April edition of The Harmonizer, which had just come out in the previous day or two. When I wrote that back in January, I imagined it as supporting material for my classes at this year’s Harmony University in July rather than for the week it was published. Obviously the universe is lining up well at the moment.

As well as spoken language, we considered body language. We noted how an entry came out much more cleanly and confidently when the section leader made eye contact, and how dramatically a smile from the leader enhanced tone quality. The poise of the head while demonstrating an ee vowel affects the sound of both demonstrator and choir members. A stable posture, without bouncing knees makes life easier for the singers as well as producing a more synchronised sound.

The content of the coaching was thus all about execution: how tweaking details of the leaders’ behaviours can help them achieve their musical goals more directly. The discussion sessions ventured further up the Dilts pyramid, though, exploring areas of belief and identity, and thus how the team felt about themselves as leaders.

Behind many people’s activities as musical leaders is a lurking fear that they are not good enough, that they might make mistakes in front of the chorus. They are worried about letting their friends down, and about being judged and found wanting. Impostor Syndrome is an entirely normal and rational response to being promoted to a position of leadership, and Musical Director Jennifer Hofmann and I spent some time reassuring team members that everyone feels like this.

The thing that lets you get beyond being unduly affected by Impostor Syndrome isn’t that you get good enough that you don’t have to feel it any more, it’s that you learn to accept it as part of the growth process. It is a classic ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ scenario – the only way out of the fear is to go through it.

And you never stop making mistakes. If making mistakes in front of the choir was an obstacle to choral leadership, nobody would ever get to sing together. But these mistakes occur in the context of trust. So long as the choir know you care, that you love the music and want everyone to succeed, they forgive your mistakes. Indeed, when the choral leader accepts their own mistakes and corrects themselves graciously, this makes it safer for everyone else to take the risks that lead to artistic growth.

Something we didn’t articulate explicitly in our discussion, so I’m noting here to supplement it, is that a key thing is not to blame the singers for mistakes that are actually the leader’s errors. You don’t necessarily have to cry mea culpa every time; a matter-of-fact, ‘Let’s take that again,’ without pointing any fingers often keeps the rehearsal moving purposefully. Other times owning the error helps reduce singer anxiety; ‘I will direct a better breath for you this time,’ takes the pressure off the chorus and gets everyone, leader and singers, focused on what needs improving.

But if the problem is actually your fault, and you tell the singers off for it, you will erode the trust between you. The more experienced ones will realise that it was your fault and resent you for blaming them; the less experienced ones will believe you and feel bad about themselves.

And this goes back to the use of positive language. If we focus what we say in rehearsal on what to do, what the music needs next (the interventions) rather than on what the problems are (the diagnoses), we are unlikely to fall into blaming anyone and the negative emotions that evokes. The positive attitude that pursuing a shared goal engenders takes everyone beyond blame. Mistakes are a normal part of the process, whoever makes them, and forgiving them is so automatic as to pass unnoticed when you are all enjoying the journey.

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