Melting People’s Brains at Cheshire Chord Company

I didn't get a screen-shot but CCC sent me this one:: numbers games in action!I didn't get a screen-shot but CCC sent me this one:: numbers games in action!On Thursday evening I popped in for a while on Cheshire Chord Company for a session billed as ‘online musicianship games’. As I told them at the start, when people tell you to explain what you do in 10 words, I say, ‘People sing to me and I mess with their heads’. I have a large repertoire of silly things to do that get people feeling like their brains are gently sizzling in butter; the word for this sensation is ‘learning’.

The challenge in planning a session like this is not finding material – I have been borrowing, adapting and inventing this stuff for years – but in crafting it into a longer session. In a regular rehearsal or coaching session I’d use these as ice-breakers, or attention-refreshers: short, intense bursts of brain-stretching silliness as a change from regular skills-based or repertoire-based work.

BABS Directors Academy: Thoughts on Identity and Values

Having outlined some of the practical and philosophical discussions stimulated by all three educators at the recent BABS Directors Academy in my last post, I wanted to stop and mull over some of the thoughts I’ve been having in response in the days since. These have that classic character of a rich learning experience where you feel the value and usefulness of the ideas to your life but also want to argue back at them.

I keep coming back to a wonderful quote, ostensibly from Picasso, which I came across in Abraham Kaplan’s book on choral conducting. I have no idea if it is genuine, but the wisdom is real even if the attribution is spurious:

The goal of an artist is to draw a perfect circle. Since a perfect circle cannot be drawn, the deviations from the perfect circle will express the artist’s own personality. But if the artist tries to express his own personality by concentrating on the deviations, he will miss the whole point.

Changing Choral Expectations in the Covid Era

In my recent post about a set of wide-ranging questions from a reader, I deferred the question about how expectations of our singers have changed under covid, on the grounds that I needed to do some more thinking about it. This post is where I will do that thinking.

When someone asks you a question about a subject on which you know you have some knowledge, you look into your brain, and usually find, if not a ready-made answer, then some useful examples from which to start to derive one. On this occasion, that process revealed… not very much. For all I’ve spent a much larger proportion of my time than usual plugged into various choral community support networks this year, I’ve not seen very much discussion about this.

Socially Distanced Singing, and Other Practice Gadgets

Socially-distanced rehearsingSocially-distanced rehearsing

One of the responses to my recent post On Singing Solo Safely talked about how the rehearsal protocols we need for live rehearsing also affect the sense of safety singers experience in rehearsal:

Singing in masks and socially distanced is another example where the safety of the wall of sound disappears and singers can often only hear themselves.

To which I’d add singing outside and in smaller groups as other things that dilute the sonic envelope around us. Indeed, of all of these, singing in masks is the least of our problems; they may feel like they symbolically gag us, but their effects on the music are minimal compared to the effects of the inverse-square law of sound.

Road-Map Back to Choral Normality

Get a cuppa, this one is longer than usual.

With the news that we have multiple effective vaccines for Covid19, it is time to start envisaging how their protection will allow choirs to come back to something approaching normal. It’s easy to see the Before scenario (where we are now), and the After scenario (rehearsing and performing back in our regular venues, as we used to before March 2020). What is less easy is to envisage the process by which one becomes the other.

This post is intended to think through at least some of the questions our new situation poses. I’m writing with an eye for the specific circumstances of my chorus, but also with an awareness of the range of circumstances other groups find themselves in. The variables, and thus the answers people come to, will differ between choirs, but many of the types of variable we need to consider will be common across us all.

Changing Choral Culture in a Time of Covid

Last week I received a message from a reader with a number of wide-ranging questions:

Have you already (that I missed) posted something about the changing culture, changing expectations of singers as a result of our individual COVID experiences? Thoughts about what new/different things that directors should do, music teams should plan, individual singer behaviors that will change, etc.? I would be interested in your thoughts in some of these areas.

Looking back over my postings over the months since March, I could see that I’d wandered near these themes a number of times (for instance here, here, and here), but there was clearly a lot more in his questions than these posts covered. So I promised to have a mull and if I had further ideas to blog about them.

On Singing Solo Safely

On Saturday I led a webinar for the Association of British Choral Directors on Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code and its implications for choral rehearsals, during which we considered how they apply both in traditional face-to-face rehearsals, and in online sessions. I always find the combined wisdom and experience of a collection of choral directors a highly enriching environment, and never fail to come out with more ideas to reflect on than I went in with.

On this occasion, there were a number of related conversations about how the exigencies of remote rehearsing put people on the line for singing by themselves. On the whole, people join choirs to sing with other people, and for many, losing the envelope of sound around them has not only taken away a fundamental aural/visceral pleasure, but has stripped away their safety net.

Now, whilst pushing people out of their comfort zones is vital for learning (and indeed Coyle has written about this in his earlier work on developing advanced skill), you need to build a safe space in which to do that, or else you risk people heading straight from their comfort zones into the panic zone without finding the learning zone en route.

In Search of Myelin and Flow-states in a Time of Covid

Last autumn, I was reflecting on the relationship between a collection of psychological concepts that have informed this blog, and indeed my work with musicians, over the years: flow, locus of control, team-work, and the process of repetition/self-correction that builds myelin, and thus develops skill.

In the musical world we took for granted back then, the group situation was integral to the process. Having the sense of contributing to the team-effort of pulling something wobbly back together in an ensemble secures your locus of control internally, and – as I observed from a different direction in my last post – the constant feedback from the choral sound around you guides your ongoing self-correction. Real-time feedback is also one of the essential components for achieving a flow-state.

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