A Day of British Barbershop Director Education

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Moments from the LABBS eventMoments from the LABBS event

Saturday saw the best weather we’ve had round here all year, so of course I ended up on Zoom for hours instead of sitting out in the sunshine. The afternoon was taken up by the LABBS Directors Education day, on the theme of returning to live rehearsals. We’d set this theme months ago, before the roadmap was published with no idea that our date would actually fall two days before a major announcement about the next step. One of our guest speakers, Prof Martin Ashley, quoted my email to invite him from back in February:

…we don't know of course exactly where we'll be by June, but some kind of live musicking will almost certainly be allowed by then, although not yet back to what one might call 'normal'

Which as predictions go is about as spot-on as I’m ever likely to achieve again!

We’d asked Martin to talk to us on the safety dimension of the questionA: how we organise our rehearsals to return safely to rehearsing. He did this by situating the question in the context of the current state of the pandemic in the UK. It is a complex and volatile moment we find ourselves at, but he brought real clarity by teasing out the various scientific and policy factors that shape our situation.

By coincidence, BABS also held their quarterly MD forum on Saturday morning, and it is no surprise that this took the same theme. I had been invited to present to the group on the experience of The Telfordaires – hence my last blog post.

A theme that came out repeatedly in the discussions at both events was the area that our second guest speaker at the LABBS day, Dr Jim Henry, addressed: vocal health. When I had invited him, I had given him a certain breadth of remit – nurturing our choruses back to health in general, which could have included musical and emotional health as much as vocal – but his specific and very practical focus on the voice turns out to have been an excellent judgement in the context of people’s experiences.

I found that hearing about this theme from a number of perspectives gave me a wider insight into it than I’d gained from just the first-hand experience of my own chorus. One director talked about the timidity with which her chorus sang on their first rehearsal back, suggesting the interrelationship between emotion, habit, and technique. Having got out of the swing of singing in a full-bodied way during the Zoom Wilderness Year, the experiences of being physically and psychologically unready were one and the same.

Another director talked about a change in vocal range in her singers: many found their ranges having dropped considerably, up to a couple of tones. I found this interesting, because I had noticed a similar shift in myself, though not quite as dramatic as that. I realised on reflection that the thing that usually has me singing regularly and copiously in all parts of my range is arranging, and with a real drop-off in commissions in the last year, the regular, extended singing times built into that work has also dropped off.

One thing that I found comforting, however, was to hear that even our most distinguished singers are feeling this vocal lack of match-fitness. A British multiple gold-medal quartet singer in the morning talked about this experience, and Dr Jim himself did too. He likened it to going out jogging: you start off and think everything is fine, then a few minutes later, reality hits.

The other comforting thing I found was his confidence in the exercises he was recommending to retrain ourselves, primarily SOVT exercises (straw phonation etc) and Stemple Vocal Function exercises. The key point he made about these, though, is that they are training regimes, needing regular, incremental work. Once a week at chorus is not enough.

Writing that made me stop typing for a few minutes to do some. Now would be a great time for you to do likewise.

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