Learning

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’.

How Listen and Do at the Same Time

One of the biggest challenges that novice choral directors face is learning how to listen to the singers at the same time as directing them. It sounds so simple, written like that, and is clearly fundamental to the conductor’s task, but as people new to the activity invariably discover, it is easier said than done.

You see, we each only have the one brain each. And if that brain needs to pay a lot of attention to unfamiliar motor skills in the context of complex musical content, it doesn’t have very many cognitive resources left over to dedicate to the sound coming into it. As one acquires experience, the raw panic of overwhelm subsides, but the challenge remains. There is a lot going on when you conduct a choir – all those people singing at once, each with their specific musical and personal needs - and we still have only the one brain with which to process it all.

On Having a Starting-Point

When I sat down to write today, I thought I was going to be using the title ‘the problem with cleaning’ to reflect on the way that the process of cleaning can have the effect of raising your standards of cleanliness, such that the job is never done. It’s not simply that it’s only when you’ve removed the film of dust over everything that you can see the stain on the carpet clearly. It’s that as you give it attention, you just keep noticing more that needs cleaning.

But as I started to write, the thoughts felt awfully familiar, and the search function reveals that I reflected on this experience as a metaphor for rehearsing back in 2011. (I should add that today isn’t the first time since then I’ve done any dusting.)

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:

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