BABS Directors Academy 2021

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BABSDA2021Saturday held the annual director-training event from the British Association of Barbershop Singers. As with everything these days, it was virtual rather than live, and also therefore rather shorter than usual – 5 hours rather than nearly two days. And, as with everything, this brought some brightsides along with the dilution of experience.

We inevitably had much less opportunity to bond with and learn from our fellow directors (so much learning normally happens in the bar after dinner!), though it was still lovely to see their faces. But it did mean that we could enjoy two visiting educators from the US, Cindy Hansen and Greg Clancy, rather than the one that the budget would usually run to.

Along with a contribution from Linda Corcoran, director of the Great Western Chorus of Bristol, this generated some really interesting connections between sessions, and interactions between presenters. This was clearly not entirely an accident – there were clear connections between the themes of Greg’s session on musical identity and Cindy’s on branding – but Linda’s presentation pre-figured elements of both and gave a useful concrete case-study for everyone to refer back to.

Given that chorus identity was such a primary theme of the day, I’m going to dedicate the rest of this post to summarising some of the ideas the presenters shared, and my next one to some of the reflections that they have led me to in the days since. There’s a whole extra set of notes about Greg’s comments on freedom in singing, which will have a post of their own in due course.

The first area to consider is why all three presenters felt it important that a chorus have a clear sense of identity. Cindy’s session focused on the practical decisions it helps you make: costuming, song choice, staging, MC style. Understanding the personality of your group allows you to craft musical experiences that are satisfyingly coherent for both participants and audience. Greg and Linda, with their interests in recruitment and development of singers, highlighted how this helps orient new members, making it very clear what they are getting themselves into.

Greg’s session placed the chorus sound at the centre of the identity. He talked about how the Vocal Majority had for many years been built around the bass sound, and how one of the shifts in his taking over from his father as primary director was that it is now built around the leads. Implicit, if not fully articulated in his narrative, was a sense of how this is an interactive process.

On one hand, as director he is constantly crafting the sound, guiding the chorus into how he wants them to produce their voices; he spoke in his second session a lot about the importance of the warm-up for getting people in the right place to sing. On the other, there was a sense of him listening to, and responding to what this collection of individuals offered up. The advice ‘Don’t try to be what you’re not’ referred to the singers’ voices as much as to the director, and to the chorus identity as a whole.

There was also a sense of an interactive and/or iterative process in how an ensemble develops its identity. In response to a question from a director who was feeling daunted about where to start with all this, Greg advised patience: let it develop organically. He spoke in several different contexts about the value of the collective wisdom of the group. Linda also spoke about the way developing her chorus’s branding had been a process of describing what they already were; she spoke of consulting their audiences, and members’ families in the process.

One of the things I enjoy about these kinds of conversations is how the practical and the philosophical are never far from each other. One minute people are talking about a deeply-held belief, the next about how they stack singers on the risers or plan a show. My notes for the next post seem to focus more on the philosophical end of the equation, so it will be interesting to see what kind of implications they develop into for practicalities once I worked through them in more detail.

Excellent take always from the day. Great understanding. Love that you are sharing the wealth. Looking forward to so much more with you in the future!

Thank you Cindy!
And amen to the last sentence!

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