Peer Learning with Holland Harmony

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The weekend's final masterclass, with the New Harvest SingersThe weekend's final masterclass, with the New Harvest Singers

My trip to the Netherlands was precipitated by an invitation to serve on the faculty for an education weekend for Holland Harmony's quartets and musical leaders. It was thus a smaller event, in terms of numbers, than last year’s Harmony College, but it was commensurately more focused. Once again we had an all-star international faculty, delivering a programme of workshops that made all of us wish we had time to go and hear each other’s offerings.

As usual after this kind of intensive weekend, I have a notebook-full of thoughts and reflections stimulated by the experience, some of which will work their way into blog posts over the coming weeks and months as I process them. In the first instance, though, it’s the nature of learning experience itself, rather than the musical content of that learning, that holds my attention.

I am sure I have discussed before the way that so much learning happens at these residential events in the interstices between the formal sessions. Mealtimes and afterglows are the places where the material from formal sessions is processed and shared. People from the same chorus who have been to different sessions come back together to exchange their new knowledge and discuss how to use it back with their chorus. People from different choruses who have met in workshop sessions continue the discussions started in class.

As I wrote that last paragraph, I could hear readers from barbershopdom all over the world replying, ‘Yeah, but a lot of people don’t talk during the afterglows, they sing’. And that only confirms my basic point: the deep learning that develops fluent musicianship may start in the classroom, but comes to fruition in stairwells and corridors as people huddle together in the full-sensory immersion of tag-singing. If you want to see tomorrow’s musical leaders, see who looks completely wrecked on Sunday morning – they were ones who chose singing through the wee small hours over sleeping.

The interstitial learning is true for the faculty too. One of the major draws when invited to teach at this kind of event is the chance to hang out with interesting musicians from around the world that I don’t often get to see. Some of us have ongoing conversations on themes of mutual interest – we can pick up and update our shared understandings in the light of the experiences we have had since we last met. It’s also fun to eavesdrop on the latest instalment of other people’s ongoing conversations.

Some time in the last year someone asked me how people like me who spend our lives educating and training others get our ongoing professional development. We do sometimes book ourselves onto courses, of course, and we read books, but this kind of experience is also an important part of the process. Talking with other educators, seeing them in action, and reflecting with them on the teaching we have just done nourishes our praxis.

But it’s not just our fellow faculty members who nourish us, especially at events like this designed for people who are themselves the musical leaders in their own ensembles. A lot of my sessions are designed in a way to use the pooled experience and expertise of the delegates as a primary teaching resource. I provide stimulus material, structure, and theoretical concepts to organise and articulate what we experience together, but without the practical skills, personal testimonies and wisdom of the participants the workshops wouldn’t work. And as they nourish each other, I also get the benefit.

So next time you feel like thanking me for any help I have been able to offer on your ongoing journey as a musician, you will also be thanking all the dedicated coaches and participants who give up their weekends to come and build these communities of practice.

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