Setting the Tone with Jordan Travis

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The collected directors, led in song by Jordan TravisThe collected directors, led in song by Jordan Travis

I spent the weekend at the British Association of Barbershop Singers’ annual Directors Academy, this year led by guest educator Jordan Travis. At the start of the weekend he framed his approach using the metaphor of harmony that is central to barbershop culture: musical harmony as both cause and expression of social harmony.

As the weekend progressed, though, a more specific metaphor seemed to emerge in his twin interests in vocal technique on one hand and chorus culture and values on the other. This crystallised on the Sunday morning while we were analysing the warm-up he had led the delegates through, and he talked about the ways that the warm-up ‘sets the tone’ for the rehearsal to come in both dimensions.

The vocal dimension is in some way the obvious function of a warm-up; if it does nothing else, it needs to transition the voices from a state of not singing into singing. But notwithstanding Jordan’s focus in the classes on specific technical detail about how the voice works, this function of setting the vocal tone is essentially a musical endeavour.

When people talk about a ‘vision’ for a chorus, they often bring in high-minded, abstract ideals. Jordan will do this too, but he also has a specifically sonic concept of vision: the quality of sound a director desires from their singers. The timbral ideal in the director’s head is what guides the application of technical knowledge, to coax the voices in their care along a road that leads to that ideal.

From what I learned of Jordan over the weekend, I don’t think he ever expects the singers to attain that place of perfection. Not just because perfection is beyond most human beings, but because the concept of ideal develops as the director also grows as a musician. And, I’d like to think, in dialogue with the actual voices in the room. I am fascinated by the way the singers as much as the director shapes the sound of a choir, and Jordan has a similarly collaborative approach to much of what he does.

The cultural dimension of the warm-up is about living the values by which the chorus will live in its rehearsals. Exercises that challenge the brain, for instance, not only serve the function of increasing mental alertness, but allow – well, ensure – failure, and thus model how to respond to failure. Laughing at the near misses, trying again, celebrating the improvements is a process that instils growth mindset as the way to approach musicking. ‘Encouraging and insistent’ is how he characterises his preferred approach.

Oh, and while I’m pulling quotes of my notebook, you’ll like this one:

Culture eats strategy for breakfast. If it’s not in your culture, it doesn’t matter how well you plan it, it won’t happen.

A corollary of this twin concept of setting the tone is to place the warm-up at the heart of the director’s job. It’s not merely an athletic exercise of preparation that occurs before the real work can begin, but the place where you create both your instrument and your team.

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