BinG! Harmony College: Further Thoughts

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The women's chorus in the final concertThe women's chorus in the final concert

I mentioned in my last post about the BinG!* Harmony College that they held a contest on the first evening to select the quartets to compete in their Convention next March. This was useful not just for the coaches to starting diagnosing learning needs, but it was a valuable part of the overall learning experience. And over the four days of the college, there were three general sessions structured around performances, and I have been reflecting on what they contributed to the overall effectiveness of the event.

After the Thursday night quartet contest, the next concert was Saturday night’s Chorditorium, in which a succession of groups performed one song each over a period of just over two hours. Performance slots were assigned on a sign-up basis, although I gather that some quartets who had competed on Thursday signed up and then subsequently relinquished their spots to allow others a chance when the evening got too full. This meant that non-competing quartets got a performance opportunity, competing quartets got the chance to share different repertoire, and those choruses with enough members attending could also perform. It was a gloriously varied evening.

And then on Sunday afternoon, the final general session saw performances from the top three quartets from Thursday’s contest and the two college choruses (men’s and women’s) made up from delegates who didn’t have quartets with them. The whole then finished with everyone singing the 8-part college song together.

The first thing to note here is that everybody had a chance to perform during the weekend. Performance experience is an essential part of a musician’s education, and in my years at the Conservatoire, one of the key things we were often in dialogue with our students over was the nature and frequency of opportunities to perform. Obviously, people in quartets and choruses get the chance to perform regularly back home, and they will learn a lot from doing so, but the college environment gives some distinctively useful aspects to the experience that regular gigs don’t so much.

For instance, the environment gives you space to reflect on the experience, and - for the Thursday and Saturday performers - to immediately give attention to things that went conspicuously better or worse than you expected. So the perform-reflect-practice loop works much more intensively. Then, the feedback you get from your audience is different when you are singing to your peers. It matters what your listeners out in your communities think about your performances, but you will learn more about your general impact than about the detail of your craft. People who know how you do what you do will respond in ways that help develop your process.

And singing to an expert audience both raises the stakes of the performance and makes the environment safer. You only get an audience that supportive and so clearly on your side when they are all also going to be performing to you over the course of the event. At the same time, you can’t hide your flaws when singing to connoisseurs. They’ll still love you if you fluff it, but they’ll have seen the fluff.

The second way this was educationally valuable was in the listening experience. Experiencing live performances is so key to the education of all performers. As my colleague Mark Racz used to tell students: you’ll learn a lot from great performances, and you’ll learn even more from not-so-great ones. It was a great resource for the coaching sessions, to be able to refer back to specific performances and say, this quartet gave a great model for how to develop phrase-end, that quartet produced the kind of sound we’re aiming for.

The form of the events was also conducive to learning. The contest structure of a quick-fire succession of two-song sets in the purist end of the genre allowed the ear and eye to delve into the central elements of the craft right at the outset of the event. It was not only the competitors’ learning experience that was thereby activated from the get-go.

The chorditorium was of course even more quick-fire, with only one song per ensemble, and the greater variety of material on display gave a richer and wider listening experience, encouraging breadth of imagination as well as analysis of craft. It would have been too much too soon to hear all this on the first evening, but by this stage everyone was deeply into the musical parts of their brains and ready to absorb that range of expressive worlds.

The third dimension in which the performance occasions contributed to the overall effectiveness of the college was in their function of bonding everyone together. The shorter general sessions for warm-up at the start of the day, and for rehearsing the 8-part song were also useful social connectors, but not everyone attended all of these.

The contest and concerts, by contrast, had a real sense of occasion. They are, by definition, a more adrenaline-inducing activity for performers than rehearsals, and that excitement is shared by an audience. And seeing each other perform gives people a structure to interact more readily and meaningfully in the afterglows that followed. Barbershop gatherings are easier for small-talk than more generalist occasions (‘where are you from?’ ‘who do you sing with?’ ‘how long have you been doing this?’) but you get into the heart of things much faster if you can start a conversation, ‘I loved your second song, whose arrangement is it?’

The fact that everyone had the opportunity to perform was also important in how the event felt. It gave a vital connecting experience to people who may not have taken any classes together over the weekend. And that sense of all participants sharing an important rite on an equal basis, built that structure of relations that builds that defining emotional state of a charismatic encounter, communion.

So, having the chorus performances after the quartets, both within the chorditorium and across the three performance events was the right way round to do things. In theory, you could schedule the college chorus rehearsals so that they’d be ready for the Saturday night, and then put the sign-up show at the end, but the emotional shape of the weekend would not be nearly so fulfilling.

One other, completely unrelated, thing that I need to share with you while it is fresh. I learned a new technical term from Lori Lyford: phnert. This the major second rub between root and seventh. She explained it me in the context of the Chinese 7th, but the very next day I found one in a lead-baritone duet where the chord was voiced in close position. Knowing it is called that helps people feel how it needs to be performed.

*I quite like this business of having a punctuation mark in the name of an organisation. I am sure there are some organisations whose titles would represent them better with a bit of punctuation.

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