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LABBS Harmony College 2019

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Arty long-shot of our central themeArty long-shot of our central themeEvery so often, the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers replaces its usual programme of regional education days and training events for chorus directors and quartets with a single grand shindig. The last Harmony College took place in 2016, to celebrate the organisation’s 40th birthday, and it was so well received that it was decided to programme them into the events cycle every three years.

Hence, 330 of us – mostly but not exclusively LABBS members – gathered together at Nottingham University last weekend. This was a significantly larger number than three years ago (to the extent that the organisation kept having to go back to the university to get more bedrooms allocated), so I don’t see Harmony College losing its place in the cycle any time soon.

Our guest educator was Mo Field, last seen in the UK at our Directors Weekend last July. There will be further posts to mull upon some of the ideas she shared with us, but for now I’d just like to note what a powerfully affirming person she is. Her manner of being immediately reassures you that you’re doing just fine as a human being. I want to be like her when I grow up.

I was running the Directors Stream as usual, in collaboration with Helen Lappert, one of the regular faculty team for LABBS directors’ events. This year we ran it as a double stream, catering for established directors on one hand (which we defined as having being in post a year or more) and on the other, novice/aspiring directors (not yet doing it through up to 6 months in post). The few people who had been doing it more than 6 months but less than a year were asked to get in touch so we could help them figure out which stream would suit them best.

Our theme for the weekend was ‘Sharing the Wisdom’. Chorus directors at all levels of experience bring a wealth of skills, ideas, and creativity to their rehearsals, and that’s when there’s only one or two of them in the room. Bring a bunch of them together and you get not only the benefit of all that insight, but also a huge fund of empathy. Nobody understands the experience of a chorus director as well as other chorus directors.

Hence our structure was devised to maximise wisdom-sharing. We had a couple of sessions with both groups together to set up dialogues between those with experience to draw on and those with fresh perspectives, then split up into the two groups. We covered a similar range of areas in both (working with the music team, rehearsing, practical conducting skills) but customised content to the likely needs of people at different stages of the journey.

Hence, for the newer directors, I focused on rehearsal planning, offering methods to help them juggle the matrix of learning repertoire and developing skills while crafting interesting and varied experiences that will make best use of their singers’ attention. These are things you can figure out for yourself in time, but the point of training is so that not everybody has to learn things the hard way.

Whilst some of this material may have been of interest to the established directors, I figured that anyone who had survived in post for any time would either have covered this area already or would have worked out their own methods. We therefore focused more on the kinds of techniques to use and behaviours to encourage within the framework of your plan to get people learning more quickly and efficiently. I have some thoughts on this session to develop into a post in its own right.

But the grouping wasn’t just about content, it was also about peer group. The kinds of questions you have early on in your journey are different from those you develop later. We wanted people to spend a goodly chunk of the time with people who were asking the same questions as they were, so that they’d all find the time spent solving each other’s problems directly relevant to their own lives too.

For one session – on music prep – we split the stream differently, based on people’s confidence and fluency in reading music, which is a variable completely independent of experience as a director. Again this was partly about content: Helen covered things like song-mapping and giving each part’s notes when starting in the middle, whilst I looked at things like the expressive implications of line contours and voicings. But it was also about pace. The defining difference between a fluent reader and a less-confident one is how long it takes them to work out what they are reading. We wanted neither to frustrate people who are already good at this nor fluster those who needed more thinking time.

The other advantage of running it as a double stream was that the delegates got the benefit of more variety. Simply a change of voice and teaching style will give a welcome lift to the attention, but of course we also brought our different perspectives and experiences to the party too.

There’s a risk there of course that we’d end up giving conflicting messages, so we worked quite hard ahead of time to make sure we each knew what the other was doing, both to make sure we didn’t tread on each other’s toes and to spot points of contact and resonance between our sessions. At a very early stage of planning, Helen proposed that we should highlight Dweck’s book on Mindset as a key source, and the way that made itself relevant – both explicitly and implicitly - in multiple different contexts gave a sense of philosophical coherence over the weekend.

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