Arranging Arrangers

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swipeIf you came here via the front page of Helping You Harmonise, you will have seen the new notice announcing the mentoring scheme I am organising for barbershop arrangers. (If you haven’t seen it yet, more details are here.) It will work by pairing people up to give each other feedback on each other’s work, and I thought it might be useful to say a few words about the rationale for this approach.

First, there is the simple logistical problem that there are far more people wanting feedback on their work than there are people who are seen as experienced enough to ask. There are several contributing factors to this imbalance. First, everybody is aware of the ways in which they are still developing, so tend to assume that they are not experienced enough to offer advice long after other people see them as capable arrangers. Secondly, there can be a gap of some years between an arranger getting good enough to have their stuff out there and their name getting generally known, so they’ll be sitting there unused as a potentially valuable mentor. And thirdly, it’s not just the inexperienced arrangers who value feedback – established arrangers need mentoring too. So any scheme predicated on the idea of the inexperienced being mentored by the experienced was bound to either exclude some of the former or overload the latter – or, most probably, both.

Besides, one of the things I had discovered over my years of helping other arrangers is that you learn a terrific amount from studying the work of others. Working out why something works or doesn’t work in someone else’s arrangement is one of the best ways to develop your own technical control. It’s also much easier to practice proof-reading on other people’s work than to find the mistakes in your own – and the pay-off from that practice is greater accuracy in your own work. Giving feedback can teach you as much or more than receiving it (and it teaches you different things). This is a primary reason why people find teaching a rewarding occupation.

So, there are both practical and educational reasons underpinning the idea of mutual mentoring. And the structure of working in pairs seems to be very effective for facilitating learning. It’s a structure I used in both academic and musicianship teaching at the Conservatoire, and over the years I discovered some interesting principles for pairing people up for maximum effectiveness.

Put simply, you need to balance closeness and distance. This works in several dimensions: level of achievement, content, personality, social familiarity. If you have two high-flyers in a group, for instance, you actually get a more effective learning experience if you don’t pair them with each other, but pair each with someone who’s pretty good but not quite at their level. The weaker of the pair will raise their game as they work together, while the high-flyer finds they have to question their own assumptions in order to articulate ideas explicitly that they had previously grasped intuitively. They need to be close enough in level that they are facing similar kinds of challenges (the high-flyer will get bored helping out with very basic issues), but having a small gap to reach across gives both parties a more interesting and satisfying experience.

Likewise with subject. In the context of my masters class on Musical Philosophies and Aesthetics, there would often be two or three people looking at essentially the same question (music and emotion, for example, was a perennial favourite). But rather than pair people looking at exactly the same thing, groupings between different, but related subjects produced more fruitful interchanges. The difference would allow them to give each other new ideas for literature to read and concepts to explore, but the relatedness meant they could explain why they thought they were relevant to each other’s work.

Social factors also played a part. It worked well to pair people up with folk they didn’t usually spend time with (not that I knew everything about my students’ social lives, but I did observe who they'd sit with in class!). In that context, language and cultural background was also an issue: I would endeavour to make sure there was someone whose first language was English in each pair to support our international students over that extra hurdle they faced. And personality was important too. There’s no objective way to measure this comparably with academic achievement or subject matter, but I could follow my hunches about who would get on well together and avoid pairing up people who I thought would rub each other up the wrong way.

This is a lot of different factors to juggle, and there were always compromises to be made. My priorities for weighting the different factors were largely in the order presented here. What I found was that about half of the pairings worked amazingly well, with both participants developing significantly further than one might have expected, and reporting on the experience with glowing eyes and excitement in their voices. And the rest were just fine: they were generally positive about the experience, seemed to have liked each other and found the interaction helpful and made useful progress. I think I only ever had one seriously dysfunctional pairing, where the participants just didn’t get each other at all – and that was in a small class where there were limited possibilities for combination.

I won’t have the same insight into all the arrangers in this scheme that I did into the students I was seeing every week in a variety of different classes. But I will have quite a lot of information, from meeting many of them personally and from what they tell me about themselves, so I’m optimistic about the pairings I’ll be able to make. And as each pairing is for a year at a time, if one interaction is merely adequate, there’s always the opportunity to discover your musical soulmate next time round.

Of course, it’s possible that all my machinations were only ever a small factor in the success of the study pairs. After all, it is the basic structure of a one-on-one interaction between two people engaged in similar tasks with similar interests that makes it useful. I sometimes think that the notion of ‘teaching’ is overrated: get a bunch of motivated people together in a room together and you can’t actually stop them learning.

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