Zooming in with The Rhubarbs

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Screenshot or it didn't happen...Screenshot or it didn't happen...My last international coaching trip early in 2020 was over to Bonn to work with The Rhubarbs and their quartet, Note-4-Note. Coronavirus was in the news by then, and we compared notes about how it was regarded in the Germany versus the UK, but I don’t think we could yet imagine the impact it was going to have on us all. Whilst it is always heart-warming to see the faces of people you’re fond of over Zoom, these memories gave a little extra emotional resonance to my visit to the chorus on Tuesday evening.

Until quite recently, they had been able to meet to rehearse, and so are in the early days of their Zoom experience. So far they had largely used the platform to stay in touch rather than for musical activity, but since they’d invited me I suggested we could do some singing games while we were at it.

We started out with a game I learned from the generous and imaginative Elizabeth Davies. I don’t know if she invented it for Zoom or merely adapted it (as it would work in live sessions too), but it is a delightfully holistic combination of vocal warm-up, musicianship exercise, and social validation. When it’s your go, you turn your mic on, and sing the name of someone else in the group, to notes of your choice. Everyone else bubbles that tunelet with their mics off, then the named person unmutes for their go.

We then went straight into singing a round. The person leading the round (in this case, me) doesn’t get any ensemble experience, but everyone else can sing along to what they hear coming out of their speakers for a real-time musical experience. The trick, for those leading, is to remember to leave enough time at the end for everyone else to finish. (That may be stating the obvious, but it’s the kind of mistake that’s easy to make when you’re not getting aural feedback from the rest of the group.)

One of the flip sides of not being able to hear people sing back to you on Zoom, is that people get rather more autonomy in choosing how they participate. So, if someone doesn’t feel confident that they’ve learned the round well enough to sing it independently, they can just sing along with the leader. Conversely, if they feel like stretching themselves, they can start in after 1 bar instead of 2.

We also talked about how you can use this principle of one person singing on mic, with others singing along at home for duetting – whether in pairs, small groups, or combined with coaching to make it into an actual rehearsal experience. Having helped them with their choral stacking based on voice timbre on my live visits I had seen how as a group they supported and cherished each other’s individual contributions, so can see them readily creating a safe environment for these kinds of activities.

I had planned to send people off in breakout groups for our third game, but came rather unstuck, having forgotten that this amenity isn’t available in the free version of Zoom. It is actually possible to head off to separate meetings in different people’s personal meeting rooms, but only if you plan this and share links in advance, and it’s still quite easy for people spend a lot of the time floundering around not sure where they should be. There’s a reason I moved on to the paid-for version very quickly after a couple of experiences like this!

So instead we discussed how to play the game all together in the main room. I’ve used it in classroom situations so it works fine in larger groups, but the key issue is how to manage turn-taking. In a room, you stand in a circle and off you go. In a Zoom breakout room, you number yourselves 1, 2 & 3. An alphabetical list of attendees in the chat is the potential solution we developed together as something to try.

Anyway, the game is a memory game, based on ‘My Granny Went to Market’, but instead of building up a shopping list, you use notes. The first person sings one note, the second sings that note and adds another, and so on until it all goes wrong, and you laugh and start again. It’s a great game because it always starts off easy so is accessible to everyone, but also stretches everyone beyond their current capacities – it’s a game you literally can never grow out of.

A question at the end was: where did I get the inspiration to devise all these games? The answer in the first instance was that it has been a group effort amongst the international choral community – people have been generous in sharing ideas and eager to harvest one other’s. But it made me reflect that I have had this kind of inventive approach to musical activities for years, at least back when I first started teaching musicianship at the Birmingham Conservatoire.

In those days we had a most imaginative model, then called ICHA (Improvisation, Composition, Harmony, Aural), in which we taught a variety of musicianship disciplines in the context of a particular style (18th-century classical and early 20th-century post-tonal were the ones I taught), in a very hands-on manner. You needed both pencils and your instrument to participate. This was originally devised by Peter Johnson, and when I first started teaching it, my colleague Martin Harlow generously shared both Peter’s original materials and those he had developed since.

But even with this starter-pack, it wasn’t the kind of class you could teach on auto-pilot, and my memory of my first year in Birmingham is dominated with a sense of heady pedagogical creativity as I scrambled to find my way inside this approach and make it my own. The challenges of 2020 have been different in detail, but that experience two decades ago set me up both with a reservoir of activities available for adaptation, and the confidence to know that, when thrown in the deep end, you can go a long way on a combination of imagination and trial-and-error.

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