Personal Development

Clarity of Concept, Clarity of Gesture

I recently had some correspondence with a director who asked me for feedback on her technique after I’d been working with her chorus, and it took us into territory that feels like other directors might also be interested in. So, I’m doing the further thinking about it I promised to do publicly here.

It started with an observation I made about how she came over in action:

I observe that when your musical concept is clearer, your gestures are more neat and precise and it takes less effort to communicate. So it may be that when you are finding the physical coordination more difficult, that is a signal that you need to clarify your musical concepts more. That is a working hypothesis rather than an absolute, but one which there is no downside to exploring.

She replied that she found this plausible, and that in fact it was sometimes developing the musical concept itself that presented the challenge:

Reflections on Coaching: Transformative or Flashy…?

My friend Stefanie Schmidt once made the comment that the kind of coaching sessions she finds most valuable are the ones that give her a concept or a technique she can go away and work on. These may not on the face of it look like the most impactful sessions, as the results aren’t immediately audible, but rather emerge later, and over time. But they make the greatest difference in the longer term.

She contrasted these experiences with those she termed ‘flashy’ coaching. The latter make major changes to the group’s performance, generating great enthusiasm and emotional energy, but not necessarily leaving the group with the wherewithal to recreate the same effect when the coach has gone home and left them to it. Flashy coaching’s legacy can actually to be to undermine the self-belief of people who have been given a glimpse of greatness but find themselves unable reach it again by themselves.

Growth, Stagnation, and Affection

When I wrote recently about my theory of affection, I had in the back of my mind a particular application in the relationship between choir and director. I was thinking about how, if a conductor expresses frustration with their choir’s progress (or, rather, the lack thereof), you know that unless they find a way out of that place, their tenure with the choir is likely not to last.

It’s a common enough problem – all choirs go through phases of rapid development and of treading water or even retrenchment as their individual and collective circumstances change over time. And part of a choral director’s resilience is weathering the patches when everything stalls with enough patience to get through to when it all picks up again.

But thinking about the conductor-choir bond in terms of affection shed some new light on it for me. If, as I suggest, affection the results when someone lets you make a difference to them, then there is a particular danger when a director feels they are unable to make a difference: they will start to care less.

My Theory of Affection

When musicians see the phrase ‘theory of affection’ their thoughts turn to 17th-century concepts of mimesis and the portrayal of emotion in music. But, interesting as that is, my purpose today is wider than the period-specific world of Affektenlehre, concerning instead the general human question of what makes us feel fondness.

It’s something I’ve thought about blogging on for many years, but there was always something that seemed more of the moment. I have been piqued into at last by reading something that for a moment looked like it was going to articulate my personal theory in more formal terms, but which in fact turned out to be a near miss.

Chip and Dan Heath report on the work of Harry T. Reis, a social psychologist who aspired to create a universal theory of relationships. He placed responsiveness at the heart of what creates interpersonal bonds, and outlined three ways in which this works:

On the Emotional Shape of Change

emotionalshapeChip and Dan Heath’s Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard reports a useful analysis of the emotional shape of projects.* At the start, spirits are high. As you get stuck into the project, people start to get bogged down – things go wrong, unforeseen obstacles emerge – and the initial positive emotional tone drops. As you get towards the end, when you’ve worked through the problems and the finish line is in sight, spirits rise again. These three phases are labeled Hope, Insight, and Confidence.

Switch: Chip and Dan Heath on Behavioural Change

SwitchSwitch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard is a book I picked up on impulse when I was buying another book by the same authors recommended by a friend. I ended up reading this one first for the simple reason it was a bit smaller and lighter and would fit in my handbag on a trip I took just after it arrived.

I’ve read and enjoyed (and indeed blogged about) ideas by Chip and Dan Heath before, and this book is similarly helpful, practical and cheerfully written. Their strength is in synthesis – bringing together ideas from other authors and presenting them in ways that are memorable and usable. So, the cast of sources they cite includes names already familiar to regular readers here, such as Kotter and Dweck, but I’d say the Heaths still add value in the clarity with which they put together their advice.

It’s almost as if they’ve read their own previous work on what makes ideas sticky.

On Patience and Living with Imperfection

As an arranger, for most of the time you spend with a piece it doesn’t sound any good. When asked how I’m getting on with a chart, I have two regular responses: at an early stage, ‘Just at the wtf do I do with this then? stage – so, making good progress,’ and, later on, ‘It sounds terrible – so, going to plan.’

The first of these stages is where you make the big strategic decisions about how the music is going to go. And often it’s in solving the intractable technical or artistic problems a particular project presents that you make your most unexpected creative decisions. So whilst this bit can be daunting, it doesn’t yet sound bad because you’ve not put enough music together to sound really poor yet.

In Praise of Imperfection

A couple of situations during my workshops at the Holland Harmony education weekend back in September got me reflecting again on our relationship as musicians with error. It’s not just that making mistakes is part of the human condition, so learning to cope with and recover from them is an important part of our musical skillset. It’s that in some situations they have a positive value in their own right.

This first came up in my two workshops on coaching techniques. These were practical classes, with participants coaching a guest quartet leading to discussion points about ways to maximise the effectiveness of the process. The first group was working with a quartet put together for the occasion from the halves of two other quartets, while the second had the current Holland Harmony gold medal quartet, LinQ.

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