Prioritising Connection at LABBS Harmony College

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Leading a vocal development session with a laughLeading a vocal development session with a laughThe weekend saw the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers holding their first full Harmony College since 2019. It was fully booked before the closing date for registrations, confounding our expectations that numbers might still be a bit down, as they were for last year’s education events. It was superbly masterminded by its Dean, Debi Cox, who brought her deep understanding of both educational needs and logistical realities to the task. If you see her, tell her thank you again from us all.

Our guest educator this year was Kim Newcomb, and whoever had the idea to invite her also needs to feel pleased with themselves. Kim is not only highly skilled as a singer (most famous at the moment for being a reigning Sweet Adelines International quartet champion), she is also a professional educator, and, it turns out, profoundly encouraging as a human being. One has the sense that she has always been nice, but she has also developed a deep moral commitment to being kind and supportive that underpins her praxis.

Her keynote address had as its central theme how she came to this position of choosing to prioritise interpersonal relationships over technical perfection. She talked about how people need to feel they are valued as a human being, not merely for what they can contribute musically to an ensemble: singers are never just singers. She also had some very perceptive observations about the roots of controlling behaviours in anxiety.

As she was presenting, I was reflecting that we couldn’t have had a more appropriate agenda set for the Directors Stream. Then I realised that all other stream leaders were probably having the same thought. And I have been reflecting since on the power of agenda-setting, in terms of shared values, and how it’s one of those things I know, but possibly haven’t given enough attention to for a while.

The over-riding aspect of her keynote that everyone I chatted to about it remarked on was how open and honest it was. It wasn’t just that she confided in us about some difficult times in her life, though of course sharing that kind of vulnerability is very conducive to trust. It was that she never gave the impression of showing off. Sure, she has developed skills and as a result achieved all kinds of stuff to be pleased about, but she never implied that that made her a better person than the rest of us. As well as being totally endearing, this has a profound educational message: ordinary people can do extraordinary things.

The other thing I’d like to reflect on here is the virtuosity of Kim’s delivery as a music educator. Everyone who witnessed it knows she’s good, but she is so good that you might not notice the level of expertise because she does it so fluently, making it look easy. (It probably is easy for her, but only because she has put the attention and practice in to develop that level of fluency.)

Things she did well include:

  • Addressing one thing at a time
  • Structuring instruction to build up systematically from simple elements to more complex tasks.
  • Framing her instructions as things to help the singers make the music, rather than as correcting things done badly
  • Constantly monitoring for the effects of her instructions, and adjusting/clarifying as needed to home in on the desired results
  • Acknowledging all achievements as they happened. (Not only is this good for the emotional tone of the encounter, it makes the achievements more likely to be retained.)
  • Politely reminding people of things already achieved if they slipped back into previous ways of doing things.
  • When something wasn’t immediately understood, owning it as a failure of instruction not something the singers(s) had done wrong, which stopped the singers worrying about themselves so they could stay effectively on task
  • Making her demonstrations brief and to the point, so the learning objective was immediately apparent.

And she did all this with a cheerful, smiley demeanour. It would be easy to see the friendliness and think that’ all she’s doing. And of course it is central to what she’s doing, it’s what creates the learning environment for everything else. But I want to celebrate the everything else too, because it’s the combination of personal warmth with expertise that is the source of her superpowers.

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