Soapbox: Technical Difficulty is not the Same as High Standards

soapboxToday’s opinion piece arises from a conversation about an arrangement I was helping an ensemble with recently. They liked the song but were concerned that the chart might be too hard for them. My view was that the arranger had placed quite a lot of unnecessary obstacles in their path.

Ah yes, came the reply, but that arranger is working with [an ambitious up-and-coming group] and sets the bar high.

I’m not saying what the chart was, or who the people involved are, as it’s really not about them personally, it’s about the ideas that emerged in this exchange. There are any number of other examples that I could be equally opinionated about, it’s just this one sparked me to return to writing on a theme long-time readers will have seen before.

A Day of British Barbershop Director Education

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!

Coming Out of the Wilderness

Our second full-chorus rehearsal: this week it didn't rain!Our second full-chorus rehearsal: this week it didn't rain!

Whilst choirs in England are still out in the cold (we are only allowed to rehearse outside as yet), we are at last able to emerge from the Zoom Wilderness. The Telfordaires have now had two full-chorus rehearsals on our regular chorus night, and are rediscovering how to do this ‘singing all together’ lark. This weekend I’m participating in two events at which the return to live rehearsal is a key theme, and this post comes out of my preparation for the experience-sharing I’ll be doing at them.

So, for background, whilst The Telfordaires have had nearly 15 months of weekly rehearsals on Zoom, we have also had a considerable quantity of live rehearsing in small groups since last summer, in 1-hour ‘weekend supplement’ sessions. We got in 14 sessions between August and December (with a month off for November’s lockdown) and were able to restart in quintets + MD in April. So, we’ve had a bit of a run-up to the full-chorus live rehearsals, and have thus been through the process of resumption a number of times.

On Conducting Technique and Tracker Action

This is something of a niche metaphor, but it is nonetheless pretty appropriate for choral conductors, given that the relationship between choir and organ is so ingrained in British musical life as to be the title of a well-established magazine for the sector.

Tracker action is a type of mechanism for linking the keys on an organ to the pipes that make the sound. In modern organs, this is usually done electronically, but the traditional method was entirely mechanical, making the connection with a series of interlinked levers. A university friend of mine, who had spent some time as an organ builder after leaving school before returning to education, described the efficiency and responsiveness of a really good tracker action in words to this effect:

Imagine you are moving this pencil along a table. When you move this end [demonstrates], you don’t have to wait for the other end to follow.

BABS Virtual Convention 2021

It is very strange being at home for the last weekend in May; for the last 25 years I have usually spent it in a town which hosts a large convention centre, missing the start of the summer weather to huddle indoors with a couple of thousand other people bingeing on barbershop music. This year, while it is not yet possible to convene safely in large numbers, especially indoors, we were still able to binge-watch barbershop at home, courtesy of the British Association of Barbershop Singers’ Virtual Convention.

The event filled most of the time slot it would usually occupy, starting on Friday afternoon and running all day and evening Saturday and Sunday. It also preserved the combination of contributions from member choruses and quartets, offerings from international guests, participatory events, education, and items that celebrated the ongoing life of the organisation such as long-service awards.

Expecting the Unexpected with abcd

abcdsquareSaturday morning saw me presenting another in the series of webinars hosted by the Association of British Choral Directors, this time in collaboration with Kate Shipway, who had proposed the idea of exploring how people might respond emotionally to the return to live choral rehearsals.

Kate took our minds back to this time last year, when the discourse within choirs was framed in terms of ‘I can’t wait to get back to this, how happy we will be!’ A year on, and people’s attitudes are more mixed – along with the anticipation (and possibly unrealistic expectations), come the anxiety and trepidation associated with re-entry syndrome. And in the time since we last met regularly in person, we’ve all been through some degree of trauma: nature and extent of it varies a lot depending on our individual circumstances, but nobody remains untouched by the experiences of the last year.

Coaching Focus on Re-Opening: Reconnecting and Rebuilding

Having announced in my last post that I am ready to welcome individuals and small ensembles for coaching, I thought it might be useful to work through some of the things that people might need to work on at this moment. We have all made heroic efforts to stay in touch and make what music we can over the past year, and small ensembles have at least had the chance to meet up outdoors during the spring to start rebuilding.

Still, there are lots of ways in which we will be feeling the effects of such a long hiatus in our regular musicking, and I have been giving a lot of thought to what people are likely to need help with, and how I can support them in this rebuilding process. The key areas I have identified are as follows:

Opening Up (Literally) for Coaching

Opening up for ventilationOpening up for ventilation

Now that up to 6 people can meet indoors in England, and non-professional singing groups of up to 6 can also re-start indoor rehearsing, I am once again able to welcome individuals and small ensembles for coaching. I’ll send you a copy of my formal risk assessment on booking, but here are the key safety measures I’ll have in place to protect us all:

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