Personal Development

Developing the Director

I don’t write very much about my one-to-one work with choral directors, as it’s mostly too personal. The coaching process with an ensemble is inherently a social process (though I am mindful about which aspects to share with people who weren’t there), but work with an individual is much more private.

But there are general themes that emerge repeatedly with different directors that I’d find it useful to reflect on, and other directors may find useful too.

A common dilemma is, given how much time and attention it takes to run a choir, how do you get time to develop your own skills too? We all have areas in which we can feel our weaknesses, but we don’t necessarily have space in our lives to take a course in music theory or conducing technique, or go for singing lessons, or whatever.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

My current and most recently-filled Thinking BooksMy current and most recently-filled Thinking BooksIt is the time of year for surveying past and future in the manner of Janus. About whom I realise I know absolutely nothing except that he inspired the name of the first month of the year by his capacity to look forwards and backwards at once. I expect he was good at three-point turns. (Though now I think about it, he must have found the introduction of car-seat head-rests to prevent whiplash both inconvenient and uncomfortable.)

Anyway, do you realise it’s just over eight years since I started this blog? That sounds like a significant chunk of time to me. Part of me is surprised to find I’m still going with no signs of letting up, but then again, I have found it an excellent form. I look back to my early twenties and see that even then, what I needed was a genre of short-form writing that is both intelligent and informal. And for six years before I started blogging, I was journaling regularly in what I have always referred to as my ‘Thinking Book’. Many of the early posts came straight out of those early-morning jottings.

Self-Talk: A Practical Project

This is a post written for a particular set of people whom I’d like to help, arising out of a specific form of language I heard in their midst on a particular occasion. But it could have been written for all kinds of other people on different days - it is a very normal turn of phrase. So I’m sharing with the world to help anyone else who finds themselves using it.

Self-talk refers to the language we use to process our own experience of doing something (in our context, making music, though it applies also to all kinds of other skilled activities). It can refer to either the directed, purposeful instructions we give ourselves as we do it, or to the ways we process and frame our experience as we reflect on it. Hence, our choice of vocabulary for our self-talk has a significant impact on how we go about deploying our skills, and how we feel about ourselves as we do it.

The bit of self-talk we are going to focus on today is starting a sentence, ‘I struggle with...’ The project is to replace it with the phrase, ‘I would like to be better at...’

Self-Confidence and Self-Talk

I have been thinking recently a good deal about self-belief and conquering the demon of Impostor Syndrome. It is something that many choral leaders grapple with on and off, not just when they are new and inexperienced, but throughout their lives. It is like a chronic condition that you get under control for a good long time, and then something triggers a flare-up just when you were least expecting it.

And it’s something that mostly people deal with alone. The lovely thing about working with choirs is that you always have company in your music-making. But if you’re worried that you are letting your singers down, or that they aren’t satisfied with your efforts, you are immediately isolated from what is usually one of your primary support networks.

So this post is partly to say: you’re not alone. Many people feel like this. And you’re doing fine. The fact that you feel responsible to your ensemble and care about their experience shows that you are on the case. It’s the people who never doubt their wonderfulness who should (but don’t) worry.

On Hypnagogia

Talking of not romanticising creativity makes me want to celebrate Sally Swain...Talking of not romanticising creativity makes me want to celebrate Sally Swain...Just sharing with you a nice penny-drop moment I had earlier in the year when a friend shared a short article on hypnagogia. No, I didn’t know the word previously either, but I was delighted to learn it, as when something has a word you know that other people share the experience of it too.

I had long been a bit perplexed that, whilst the standard descriptions of sleep phases placed REM sleep in the depths of the night, preceded and followed by deeper phases of sleep, I frequently experience involuntary rapid eye movements right at the edge of sleep - as I doze off or while waking up. This is sometimes, though not always, accompanied by light dreaming - and I can often wake myself up by being surprised at the dream images. Now I know this state is called hypnagogia, I can stop being perplexed by it.

On Self Care and Social Responsibility

I have a coaching report in hand to share from last weekend, but am interrupting usual service, on this day of the UK’s referendum on EU membership, to reflect on coping strategies in times of anger and anxiety. In recent weeks, both mainstream and social media seem to have been full of things that make me sad or worried or outraged or all three, to the point that it sometimes feels like I’m living in a work of dystopian speculative fiction. I can’t be doing with the emotional pain.

It is sensible in such circumstances to step back. Don’t keep reading the things that make you angry; turn away from the outrageous headlines; stop feeding the anxiety.

Yet, this approach to self care feels like a counsel of despair: turning away from the world, because the world is a bad place to be. Disengagement feels like giving up. It is also - I note because my empathy is still functioning after a fashion - a response available only to those of us privileged enough to lead safe lives.

Doug Harrington and Helen Lappert on Planning for Freshness

I neglected to take a photo during the session, so here is a pic of two very positive people to set the sceneI neglected to take a photo during the session, so here is a pic of two very positive people to set the sceneAt last week’s Harmony College, I was running the Directors’ Stream, in my capacity as LABBS Chorus Director Development Specialist. (Nice job title, eh? Useful for when I need to tell people what my role is in the association these days.) Our theme for the weekend was ‘Keeping it Fresh’, and one of the ways we kept things fresh for our delegates was having input from a variety of the faculty on hand for the event.

This included a rather wonderful double act from guest educator Doug Harrington and Helen Lappert, director of Amersham A Cappella on the subject of planning for freshness. I wanted to have a mull on it today as not only did include lots of useful practical advice, but there were some interesting resonances with the session I had done on Saturday on the psychology of Flow, and with Philip Zimbardo’s ideas about our relationship with time I explored some years ago.

Music Teams and Johari Windows

Johari Window model: this version (c) Alan ChapmanJohari Window model: this version (c) Alan Chapman

While we're thinking about music teams (well, I am even if you haven't been), it seemed a good moment to reflect on an analytical grid that was developed specifically as a way to think about how team members work together. It's name, Johari, makes it sound rather exotic I always think, but in fact it was named after its inventors, who went by the names Joe and Harry.

The grid categorises information about a person as either known or unknown, both to themselves and to the rest of the team. 'Information' here can be knowledge, skills, thoughts, feelings - basically anything that can be known or unknown about a person. The point of the analysis is that the more that is known to all (the open quadrant, top left), the better a team can communicate and cooperate.

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