Coaching

On When to Persist, and When to Forgive…

I’ve been thinking quite a lot recently about the balance between being uncompromising with one’s standards, and about when to let things slide. I’ve been having a number of conversations with people about this, and have also (possibly as a consequence) been particularly aware of it as a question in my own praxis.

Clearly, holding people (including oneself) to a level that you know they can achieve is key to maintaining and developing performance standards. Jim Clancy puts transforming good things that you do sometimes into things you do all the time at the heart of excellence; John Bertalot writes about choral rehearsing as being like pushing a man up a greasy pole.

Building the Arc with Norwich Harmony

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Note that’s ‘arc’ with a C; whilst it was a bit rainy in Norfolk at the weekend, we didn’t need to construct emergency rescue vessels for us and all land mammals on this occasion. But we did have a productive time thinking about expressive musical shape and how it relates to both narrative and vocal legato.

I have visited Norwich Harmony for coaching days several times over the years, but this was the first time I joined them for a full weekend’s retreat. They had an interesting model, choosing a venue that consisted of a number of holiday cottages around a central courtyard and event room. Most of the catering was organised within the groups sharing each cottage, except for a bring-and-share dinner on Friday and a meal delivered by outside caterers on the Saturday.

Listening Louder with the Sussex Harmonisers

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I spent a happy Saturday workshopping and coaching with the Sussex Harmonisers at the weekend. They have an interesting set-up: one club, with one board and music team, but two choruses, one male-voice, the other female-voice, which also currently share a director (though they haven’t always done so). The two choruses operate largely independently as ensembles, with separate rehearsal nights, but the shared infrastructure allows them to coordinate and collaborate on repertoire and performance plans.

Saturday was their first shared education event, and they devised a very effective model for it. In the morning, I worked with both choruses together in a workshop themed ‘The Listening Chorus’. Then after lunch, they took it in turns to have 45-minute sessions of coaching on songs from their respective repertoires, with the other chorus listening.

Concentrating the Energy in Berlin

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Sometimes you find a single overarching theme for a coaching visit encompasses a range of areas to work on that initially seem quite disparate. Having the chance to listen to the group in advance increases the chance of spotting this in time to set the agenda from the outset. Such was my experience with Women in Black in Berlin last weekend.

Their recordings from the previous week’s rehearsal revealed a chorus with a clear sense of expressive intent, bringing a lot of energy to their performance. (I learned afterwards that their previous coach, Lisa Rowbathan, had done a lot of work with them on story-telling; that this came over in the recordings as a conspicuous strength is a testimony to her effectiveness.) I arrived with the aspiration to help them harness that energy in a more focused fashion to help them realise that intent more efficiently, both so that they didn’t have to work so hard, and so that their intentions would be communicated with greater clarity.

A Champion Day

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I spent Saturday with my friends at Bristol A Cappella, working with them on music they will be performing as outgoing Mixed Chorus Champions at BABS Convention in May. What with their mic-warming duties, swan-song set and show spot, there’s a good deal more music to prepare for the event than you ever have to bring as a competitor, so we had a busy time. Fortunately, the groups who are faced with this packed schedule are the ones who have demonstrated skills that will win a contest so are up for the extra challenge.

Getting into our Ears

The theme for our recent joint LABBS/BABS Directors Weekend was ‘The Listening Director’. It was originally sparked by a request from a delegate at LABBS Harmony College directors stream last year for more work on diagnostic listening skills in rehearsal (initial response: yes that’s very important, let’s do more on it!), and then kind of snowballed from there.

The more you think about the ways and contexts in which chorus directors have to listen, the more it asserts itself as the central skill of the job. It’s more important in many ways than actual conducting skills, because however elegant your technique looks, it doesn’t do any good unless you can effectively hear what you’re getting in response to your conducting. Whilst if you can get your ears into the detail of how your chorus is singing, your gestures intuitively adapt themselves to those needs.

Tuning is a Performance Indicator, not a Goal

So here’s another one in the genre of ‘if you haven’t got time to read the post, the title says it all anyway’. I’ve had a few conversations recently about my preference to avoid talking about intonation in rehearsal if I can possibly avoid it, and it seems that some people equate this with not caring about intonation. So I wanted to clarify things a bit.

First off, I love the sound of in-tune singing. And by this I mean both singing that maintains tonal integrity (key note staying in the same place) and singing in which all the parts are in tune with each other. Both horizontal and vertical in-tuneness, if you like. And it’s not just the way that good tuning is more consonant and cleaner to listen to at an acoustic level, it’s all the way that it brings with it beauties of tone colour - clarity, ring, luminosity – and expressiveness that you may not hear at other times.

Preparing to be Coached in Conducting

This post was written as guidance notes for delegates to the LABBS/BABS Directors Weekend coming up in January. I’m sharing it via my blog because it has a wider applicability that goes beyond that one event. And if you’re not coming to the event, now you know what you’ll be missing!

Directing somebody else’s chorus is, as Sally McLean puts it, like wearing somebody else’s shoes. However experienced you are as conductor, it always feels weird at first. So, don’t worry, everybody feels like this, but we still do it because you can learn a lot from it, and it’s always lovely to have people singing with you, even in slightly unnerving circumstances. Bear in mind that your coaches at the weekend are also receiving coaching themselves, so will know exactly what it feels like!

These notes are to help you prepare for the experience. Both in terms of things you can do ahead of time to make the most of the coaching session, and in terms of letting you know what to expect.

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