Personal Development

The Path Through the Trees

Today I am going to mull on an intriguing bit of advice Mo Field offered at LABBS Harmony College in April. She suggested that chorus directors show their singers ‘the path through the trees’. By this she meant that instead of focusing on the percussive events (the trees), we should give attention to the overall line of the music.

Now, traditional conducting technique is all about clarity - the director’s primary task is to keep everyone unambiguously together. Leonard Bernstein talked about this role as ‘glorified traffic cop’; I have been known to refer to it as the ‘sheepdog function’. On the face of it Mo’s advice would seem to directly contradict this received wisdom.

Resistance is Useful

I have written before about Mark Forster’s helpful approaches to overcoming the struggles that lie at the heart of procrastination. Indeed, when I went back to see what I said last time I reflected on them I found quite a few of the ideas I thought I had just had when mulling over this post. Ahem.

Anyway, his key point bears repeating: that it’s rarely the outer game of time-management that is the problem, but the inner game of just not wanting to get on with that right now. Or as he calls it, resistance.

The particularly astute bit of his analysis is that the strength of your resistance is often directly proportional to the importance of the task. Importance in this context is somewhat subjective – sometimes to do with scale (big jobs take a lot of oomph to start on because you know they’re going to take a lot effort to complete), sometimes with difficulty (it’s harder to get started when there are bits of the task you know you don’t yet know how to handle), and sometimes with emotional investment (if you care a lot about something you are tentative about screwing it up).

On Vocal Confidence

Since the start of the year is a traditional time for goal-setting, I had conversations earlier in the month with various singers about what they would like to get better at during 2019. And there’s a theme that has come up in several times that I’d like to reflect on for a while, and to consider how best to support people working on it: vocal confidence.

You can see why people identify it as a goal: it is very natural to want to feel more secure in what you’re doing. What is less immediately clear is what produces this feeling. Because as I’ve noted before, confidence is not the same as competence - your objective skill level and how you feel about your performance are connected to an extent, but it’s by no means a direct or linear relationship. And sometimes the relationship is even inverted.

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.

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