LABBS/BABS Directors Weekend: Initial Impressions

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The opening plenary: Theo working with Silver LiningThe opening plenary: Theo working with Silver Lining

The weekend just gone saw what I suspect might be the largest conductor training event this country has ever seen. 120 directors/assistant directors and 2 choruses per day from both the women’s and men’s British barbershop associations gathered in Coventry for their first ever fully joint educational event.

(The Association of British Choral Directors Conventions are bigger than this to be sure, but they don’t include practical, hands-on instruction for everyone there. And conducting training in higher education usually works with much much smaller numbers.)

As you can imagine, I have lots to reflect on, and many things I have learned will be finding their way into my blog posts over the coming weeks. In the first instance, I’m just trying to process what we achieved, and capture some of the big-picture learnings on the way past. If much of what follows sounds more organisational than musical or educational, that’s because that was the primary challenge of the weekend, but it was fundamental to allowing the music and education to happen.

As you can imagine, to get 120 individual coaching sessions meant we had a full schedule. We had four simultaneous coaching sessions going on for four one-hour slots each day, in parallel with Core sessions, streamed into Established and Newer directors, which everyone took, and a choice of elective sessions. So, 7 or 8 parallel activities going on at once, delivered by 9 faculty members (4 from each of LABBS and BABS, and our wonderful guest educator Theo Hicks, on whom more in future posts) and guest elective spots by 8 other chorus directors who thereby enabled the faculty members also to receive as well as provide education. We also had three plenary sessions so that we all got to feel like we were participating in the same event, and so that everyone got to hear from Theo.

If you want to produce 120 individual timetables, it helps to live with a computer programmer who can write code to generate them from your spreadsheet of class lists. Everybody there owes Jonathan a drink, as it would have been, well not impossible, but many many hours more work without him (it was quite a lot of hours for both of us as it was!). But having everyone able to see exactly what they needed to do when and where at every stage of the weekend saved an enormous amount of faffing and confusion.

Because the biggest concern for the Events Team was the sheer logistics of getting that many people served a beverage during the break and back to their next session in time. This turned out to work pretty well, I’m happy to say, and I think there were a number of factors that helped, in addition to the clarity about what was happening where and when.

The venue helped by having everything in quite a compact area, though with multiple routes available at the places where we might get bottle-necks. And schools are well-supplied with clocks - I particularly appreciated the large one in the canteen, though thinking about it, getting large numbers of people to the right place at the right time is a routine challenge in such institutions, so they are set up to help this happen. We had also been clear about this challenge in our pre-course communication, asking the delegates to be as prompt getting to their sessions as they would like their chorus members to be coming back to rehearse after the break.

The culture of promptitude was even robust enough to survive a last-minute change of plan on the second day. The Events Team had gone into all classes early on Sunday afternoon to let people know about a severe weather warning for later in the day, so that anyone with a long distance to travel could consider leaving early if they needed to. Thus, when Iain Hallam had the genius idea during the break before the final session that we could start it early to let people get away earlier, everyone already knew what was going on.

We made the decision at 15.12 to start at 15.20 instead of 15.30, and got that message to 150 people (delegates plus guest chorus) in time to have them back in the main hall to do so. Again, there are some interesting things about that cameo moment to reflect on in more detail anon, but for now I just want to register how brilliant it was that we managed that with so little fuss.

One of our mantras in the LABBS director education has been that we are each other’s best resource, and one of the things that made this event really exciting was effectively doubling that resource by putting both organisations together. It was like the perfect party list: everybody knew someone, but nobody knew everyone. And while different voicings of chorus present some different challenges, we have far more in common than we have differences.

We didn’t know for sure in advance that this would be the case, but it turns out that the benefits of running such a huge event made the logistical challenges worthwhile. There is also value in smaller events, so we won’t give up on those, but I hope this isn’t the last collaborative endeavour we embark on: now we’ve done it once we know it’s not only possible but also intensely rewarding.

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