Coaching

Harmonic Explorations with Amersham A Cappella

AACfeb22

I spent a happy Tuesday evening with my friends at Amersham A Cappella, working on the music they are preparing to compete with at the European Barbershop Convention in Helsingborg in May. It was probably the closest to a ‘normal’ experience I’d had this side of the pandemic. Aside from the open door for ventilation, and the need to wear a mic so those unable to be there in person could watch via livestream, it felt just like old times.

Familiar faces helped this feeling of course – we have a long-standing relationship that made it easy to slot straight back into the kind of work we do together. And the nature of the work – diving deep into musical detail - slotted us back into a familiar context of how the major contest of events of the barbershop world organise the experience of their participants over the course of months.

Chorus and Director Coaching with Welwyn Harmony

Warm-up pic: with coats, as the room is well-ventilated and it's January!Warm-up pic: with coats, as the room is well-ventilated and it's January!

Tuesday evening took me to Welwyn Garden City for the first of a series of sessions with Welwyn Harmony working with the chorus and their directing team together. There are all kinds of reasons why this kind of combined approach is useful, beyond the fact that both areas of focus are of value in themselves.

As a learning experience, a double focus gives both director and singers space to digest things, to work with a new idea or technique for a while without direct scrutiny. You actually get more total learning in this way: people are going to need some time to absorb and integrate the input anyway, so you can spend some of that processing time offering input to someone else, who will then have space to do their own processing when you switch focus back.

And seeing other people learn things is itself a powerful learning experience. It’s why putting two quartets in with one coach is a successful model, and why I like to do individual voice coaching with my chorus with two singers at a time. What you learn from doing can be different from what you learn by seeing and hearing others do.

More on Breath

In my last post I considered one specific way that James Nestor’s book Breath has got me rethinking how I train singers (and indeed, how I sing myself), today I will romp through a number of his other points that suggest our craft’s claim to healthfulness is more well-founded.

  1. Exhale. Many of us, Nestor contends, spend much of our lives breathing in shallowly on top of air that we’ve not fully exhaled. Emptying the lungs thoroughly between breaths gives us better gas exchange in the lungs (and thus better blood chemistry and thence better-functioning organs).

    Anyone I have directed, and many I have coached will know that I recommend people exhale completely before taking their first breath to sing. As a conductor I exhale too, and so can feel the natural timing for the coordinated intake to start singing. I observe that people who empty their lungs prior to singing take more deep-set, relaxed breaths and thus produce a more resonant tone. They also find it easier to sing complete phrases.

On Breath

breathWhen two people you know mention a book in the same week, especially when it's a book whose title relates directly to your core professional interest, you know you’re going to have to read it. James Nestor’s Breath isn’t written for singers (although one of his many eccentric case studies is a choral conductor), it is written for human beings who breathe. But of course those of us involved in singing like to think this is one of the things that makes our craft healthful, so it seemed prudent to check it out and see exactly how well things cross-reference.

Breath presents itself as one of those revelatory, ‘this book will change your life’ kind of narratives, and with its interweaving of ancient, traditional texts and modern science (though rather fringe science in some cases), skirts along that line between ‘engagingly plausible’ and ‘woo’. As one of the friends who had read it put it, ‘Some of it is quite bonkers, but some things make a lot of sense’. So, it’s not one to read uncritically, and I’m going to focus my discussion of it on the bits which seemed more likely.

(This may, therefore, turn into a display of confirmation bias, ahem.)

Back in Person with Surrey Harmony

How long since I've been able to post a warming-up pic?!?How long since I've been able to post a warming-up pic?!?

Well, that was a treat! Wednesday saw my first live coaching visit since last Spring. It was Surrey Harmony, down in Coulsdon, whom I’d not worked with for 6 years or so. They had two new songs just off the copy, one of which I had arranged for them, and were ready to get their teeth into bringing the music to life.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how refreshing it is for an ensemble to have a different consciousness in the room, hearing new things, imagining different possibilities from the ones they are used to. It is equally refreshing for the coach to hear different voices, to diagnose different strengths and needs; these encounters stimulate the creativity in ways that your regular rehearsal can’t. The familiarity of a long-term working relationship brings the opportunity to build, but by definition doesn’t force you to listen and think afresh in the same way as you have to when faced with the unfamiliar.

Coaching and the Conductor-Choir Bond

Unmasked for the photocall!Unmasked for the photocall!On Wednesday I had my first live coaching experience since the start of Covid, when Andy Allen from Hallmark of Harmony came to work the Telfordaires. It was such a treat to have the input from a fresh consciousness after all this time, and it gave us all a real lift. And the experience got me reflecting on the ways a coach affects the intra-musical interactions of director and singers.

Those who have read my second book will know a good deal about my research into the nature and operation of the conductor-choir bond already; it is also a theme that runs through this blog over the years. But I don’t often write about it from the inside, from the first-hand experience of the conductor.

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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