Coaching

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.

Going in Deep with Bristol A Cappella

BACsep23Saturday saw me back with my friends at Bristol A Cappella, coaching them for the first time since they stormed into a gold medal in the BABS mixed chorus contest in May. It is said that you start singing better the first time someone pins a medal on you, and there was definitely a new sense of assurance on show. They’ve always been an intelligent chorus, willing to engage with things that will help them improve, but the process of making those gains is quicker when the singers aren’t wondering whether they are capable of them.

Our task for the day was to work on four repertoire songs for their up-coming show to celebrate their 10th anniversary next month. It felt like the earliest times I worked with them, back before the barbershop mixed chorus existed, with a wider range of styles and repertoire, including a texturally-adventurous 8-parter. You can buy your tickets here: bit.ly/BAC10yearconcert

On Transformative Learning Experiences

I have been reflecting on what makes a transformative learning experience, having had the joy to be involved in a number of them over the first part of this year - some as teacher, some as learner. Enough of them that it’s worth teasing out some patterns to see what they might have in common.

I’ve also experienced a bunch of perfectly normal, everyday learning experiences, of course, where you make useful progress but don’t feel things have fundamentally changed. These provide a useful comparator for the transformative experiences, of course, but I think they’re also key an important part of their context. You wouldn’t want – couldn’t cope with – every learning experience making fundamental changes to how you relate to your praxis. The regular week-in, week-out work is what sets you up for the great leaps forward, and what allows you to consolidate them and embed them in your musical identity.

Key elements to these experiences include:

Making Connections with One Acchord

Traditional warn-up picTraditional warn-up pic

I had an adventure up to the Scottish borders at the weekend to work with One Acchord, based in Bowden. Like many LABBS choruses, they are preparing for this year’s Convention with a mix of well-established members with some prior contest experience, and a sizeable post-pandemic intake who will be on the big stage for the first time this autumn.

Our work was therefore based around both developing the musical and vocal skills their songs needed and understanding the processes of mental and emotional preparation to make the most of significant performance occasions.

On the Discomforts of Relaxation

There’s an anecdote in one of F.M. Alexander’s books in which he tells of a child he was working with who had had very restricted mobility because of extreme habitual muscular tension. Using the techniques he had originally developed to deal with his own problems with bodily coordination, Alexander unwrangled much of this tension, bringing her body into a much more neutral alignment. Her response was to complain about how strange she felt.

I have been thinking about this story recently in the context of my own challenges in rebuilding my relationship with the piano. Some of my technical work has involved refining what I do with my hands and fingers, but most of it is about not doing stuff with my shoulders, back, glutes, legs, and (more weirdly, as I have got deeper into this process) intercostals muscles and muscles deep in my abdomen.

Embracing our Superpowers with Fascinating Rhythm

Warming up with clapping gamesWarming up with clapping games

On Thursday I went down to follow up on the session I did with Fascinating Rhythmand their director Jo Thorn back in February. They have spent the intervening 10 weeks or so embedding the shift in dynamic between conductor and chorus, and the singers reported feeling both more secure and more personally expressive now that Jo is doing less, but with greater precision and nuance.

We started off by building on this work by clarifying some of the ways to think about the conductor-choir bond. Rather than thinking in terms of Jo ‘displaying’ how the music needs to go, we thought in terms of the chorus throwing the music into her hands for her to shape. The singers experienced this as being given more ownership over the expression, while Jo developed a concept of the music as a ball of energy in her hands. This shift in attention away from what her body was doing to what she was doing with the music helped her both relax more and hear more.

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