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Developing Our Lexicon

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One segment of our working brain-dumpOne segment of our working brain-dumpToday’s title is a direct quote from the inimitable Mo Field, who as Guest Educator at the LABBS Directors Weekend last summer, invited the assembled chorus directors to consider the kinds of vocabulary and turns of phrase they habitually use with their singers. What kind of values do they encode? What underlying messages do they give about what you care about?

Re-reading Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code earlier this year gave a nice cross-reference to his analysis of successful coaches. Distinctive and pithy catch-phrases that capture central principles of praxis are one of the characteristic behaviours that he documents.

It was with these thoughts in mind that I spent a chunk of a recent meeting with the Telfordaires’ Music Team reflecting on the vocabulary that we regularly use in rehearsal. The analysis both gave us some interesting feedback on what we have been doing and helped crystalise our sense of what makes good lexical terms for us.

For instance, an area that we have been working on deliberately and systematically for the last year had many more items in it, and they were a lot more specific, than an area we had knowingly given less attention to while we developed those skills. Which is what you might predict, but it got us thinking that as we move on to integrate the two areas we’ll need to get more specific in how we talk about the latter.

One of the key observations to emerge was how much of the language is concrete and imagistic rather than abstract and technical, even when we are dealing with areas that are specifically about technique. We’ll talk about a phnert rather than a major 2nd, for instance, or remind people to be surprised giraffes rather than discuss alignment.

I am on record as liking metaphors for all kinds of reasons, though I don’t know that I’ve ever specifically articulated the point that our lead section leader Paul made, that it makes the language relatable. The Telfordaires is a very friendly club, and one of the things I love about its culture is that everybody cares deeply about making the music good whilst not taking themselves too seriously. Given that the lived experience of the rehearsal process makes up such a high proportion of the time we spend together, accessible language feels like a significant part of that ethos.

This made me reflect on my coaching praxis too of course. There’s a big overlap in vocabulary between my regular rehearsal experience and my work with other groups, not least because effective concepts that emerge in response to one group’s needs are so often transferable to help another. Everyone has been riding flying carpets since I coached ‘A Whole New World’ out in Nashville, variably for postural or melodic reasons.

I noticed in reflection that I do sometimes use proper grown-up technical vocabulary when out coaching – and it is specifically when I know there is someone in the room who will connect with. If there are fellow arrangers in the house, for instance, I’m going to start naming chords.

But I rarely if ever use only technical language. I’ll give both names: the half-diminished/the yearny chord, the II7/the higher-caffeine harmony. This is partly because not everyone in the room is likely to be comfortable with the technical language, and teaching is always more effective if you say things that people can understand.

It’s not just that, though. The point about imagery is that it connects musical content to lived experience. Whilst it doesn’t have the specificity of technical language (you can’t teach the nuts and bolts of arranging without naming actual chords), it carries richness of connotation beyond the merely technical. So using both terms infuses the specific-technical with wider expressive meaning; it motivates the musical content.

It is not surprising then that the Telfordaires work well with imagery – it is a chorus that has a strong commitment to communication. You can tell this not just in the way they like to play up to an audience, especially one that is close enough to interact with directly, but in the advice they give each other in rehearsal, which is so often to encourage the act of story-telling.

And, yes, some of this comes from me as director. One of the things that delights me is that if you use a word like swooshythroughiness (to take a representative example) as a matter of course in rehearsal, everyone else starts using it too. And for the same reason you do – it names a particular musical quality that some passages need. But whilst I have introduced all kinds of specific bits of our lexicon, I’ve not been there all that long, and the culture that works well with vivid, meaningful and unpretentious ways of thinking about music pre-existed my tenure. This is one of the reasons why my audition for the post was successful – we mutually identified a good fit.

So, now we’ve thought about our lexicon in more detail, we’ll be able to be more aware and purposeful in how we use our vocabulary to nurture that communicative, relatable and imaginative culture.

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