Learning

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.

Musical Knowledge and Musical Enjoyment

I’m coming back today to a topic that Michael Callahan raised in response to my post about Practical Aesthetics earlier in the year, and which I noted as a big one that deserved separate reflection. The question is this: to what extent does an audience need to be informed to enjoy a performance?

Michael’s comment was framed, to match the post he was responding to, in terms of knowledge of musical aesthetics, but I think the question extends further to concern other aspects of musical knowledge: style, genre, technique. Do you have to understand what the musicians are doing in order to enjoy it?

Concentrating the Energy in Berlin

Women in Black Mar24

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.

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.

LABBS/BABS Directors Weekend: Initial Impressions

The opening plenary: Theo working with Silver LiningThe opening plenary: Theo working with Silver Lining

The weekend just gone saw what I suspect might be the largest conductor training event this country has ever seen. 120 directors/assistant directors and 2 choruses per day from both the women’s and men’s British barbershop associations gathered in Coventry for their first ever fully joint educational event.

(The Association of British Choral Directors Conventions are bigger than this to be sure, but they don’t include practical, hands-on instruction for everyone there. And conducting training in higher education usually works with much much smaller numbers.)

As you can imagine, I have lots to reflect on, and many things I have learned will be finding their way into my blog posts over the coming weeks. In the first instance, I’m just trying to process what we achieved, and capture some of the big-picture learnings on the way past. If much of what follows sounds more organisational than musical or educational, that’s because that was the primary challenge of the weekend, but it was fundamental to allowing the music and education to happen.

On Managing Persistent Mistakes: Part 2 – Cure

In my last past, I reflected on ways to support singers in learning their music accurately, to save everyone the frustration of having to unlearn and relearn, which is much harder. But of course, as you are working with human beings, you will still encounter times where people have learned something wrong. And, like the scenario that prompted these posts, the problem is often not getting people to correct their errors, but of keeping them corrected.

I have been thinking about this from two perspectives. The first is how to interrupt the behaviour pattern that includes the mistake(s). A persistent error is persistent because it has been practised, and if you want to replace that pattern with something else, you need to prevent them strengthening that neural pathway any more. In Alexander Technique terms, this is called Inhibition.

On Managing Persistent Mistakes: Part 1 - Prevention

There was an interesting conversation recently in a Facebook group for chorus directors about the challenge of a singer who was consistently getting some notes wrong. They were able to sing the right notes correctly in section, but reverted to the wrongly-learned version when back in the full ensemble.

The director who raised the question framed it in terms of the dilemmas of expectation-setting and qualification for participation in performances. They didn’t want to be the kind of group who excluded people, but equally the errors were disturbing other singers and obviously had an impact on the quality of performances. The ensuing discussion included a lot of wisdom about setting up systems to manage quality control in the context of individual development. The shared goal was to support people to succeed.

On Musicking in the Moment

Music is, by definition, a time-based art-form, so producing sounds one after another is inherent to its praxis. But, as I explored a few years back, the unrelenting march of musical time can create unhelpful pressures on musicians, and, when not actually performing, it is often valuable to suspend time and let moments elongate themselves around you.

I recently remembered a lovely exercise that Jim Henry did with the White Rosettes at the LABBS Directors Weekend in 2015. He had them sing the target vowel of a particular syllable in the lyric of their song, but without knowing until he signalled whether they were going to sing that word, or another with the same vowel. I forget which actual words were involved, but for example sustaining ‘moo’, without knowing until the signal whether the word was going to become ‘moon’ or ‘mood’.

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