Gearing Up in Guildford
I spent Saturday afternoon working with Guildford Harmony prior to their appearance on a show in the town’s Electric Theatre raising funds for the Royal Surrey Hospital’s Detecting Women’s Cancers appeal. The occasion had emerged synergistically around the show. On one hand, they had been running a ‘taster course’ for potential new members, and the chance to participate in the show gave them a wonderful performance goal and emotional focus for the course. On the other, I had been invited also to appear on the show, in my guise as stand-up comedian.
Since I was in town, the opportunity to have me work with the chorus in the afternoon gave an even greater sense of culmination to the course (as well as being of practical support to the new singers of course!). The fact that it led me to a rather dizzying set of role-changes during the course of the day was secondary. At least I could see it coming and prepare carefully.
A coaching session just before a performance has very specific needs. You need to steer clear of anything that could get the singers second-guessing themselves. The priority has to be to deliver them to the audience feeling confident and pleased with what they have to offer, so some things that you might see as priorities in other contexts are best ignored.
(In this case, there were some issues with ‘version control’ - when the same bit of tune comes back with different features in the arrangement, not all singers were getting all of these in the right order. It’s the kind of thing that could be dealt with quite effectively by song-mapping, but you don’t want to start unpacking and repacking people’s heads without a couple more rehearsals before the performances to consolidate.)
What you can do is focus on communication. You can pack a lot of expressive shape into a performance in a short time by getting people to think in terms of how they need to make the audience feel at different points in the music, and what kind of world you are taking them to. You can even address the occasional technical detail (snappier consonants, a taller ‘ay’ vowel) if it’s framed in terms of the message of the lyric.
Taking this approach has two effects on the singers (in addition to a more expressive performance, which is the primary goal). First, it makes sure that it is primarily the Communicator rather than the Manager on duty for performance day. You’re not overloading them with things to consciously remember, but focusing your attention on musical meaning and its effects. This will allow them live in the moment in the performance, whilst still bringing some of the content of the coaching session to the stage with them.
Indeed, I tasked them all with deciding on one particular detail that they were going to do really well in the performance, and committing to that alone. Anything else they did well would be a bonus. This is an exercise I often do at the end of a coaching session when people want to run the music we have been working on to summarise our work. Its purpose is to take the pressure off people to remember everything - which is impossible, and will only distract them if they are constantly beating themselves up for things they’ve missed. Committing to one thing is doable, and gives a nicely focused task that you can then feel good about. Consolidating all the other details is the work of the future.
The second effect of the communication focus was to turn everyone’s attention to how the audience was feeling as a way to mitigate any self-consciousness or anxiety, especially amongst the new singers having their first performance with the chorus. When we experience adrenaline as ‘nerves’ rather than as ‘excitement’ in preparation for a performance, that can often be because we’re worried about being judged and found wanting. If we’re thinking about how other people are feeling, we just don’t have the mental space to worry so much - it turns the limits to our cognitive capacities to our advantage.
And I’m happy to say that Guildford Harmony opened the show with aplomb. At a personal level, it was a particular delight that they sang ‘I Find Your Love’, which I had arranged for them back in 2011, with real tenderness and beauty, and that my mum - who was in the audience for her first taste of me as a comedian - enjoyed their performance of that song in particular.