Soapbox: Stop Blaming the Singers for Pitch Loss When You’re Not Conducting in Tune

soapbox
So I seem to have produced a title today from the school of ‘Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway’ – i.e. one that gives the entire content in one sentence. So it you’re okay to say, ‘Right, got it, I’ll stop blaming the singers for pitch loss,’ then you don’t need to read any more of it. If, however, you’re not sure what I mean by this, then the rest of the post may yet be helpful.

As anyone who has worked with me will know, I very rarely raise the issue of the tonal centre dropping while rehearsing or coaching. It’s not that I don’t care about it, it’s just that I don’t regard it as helpful to draw singers’ attention to it. It just makes them worried, and the first thing that anxiety does to the voice is add tension around the neck and tongue and undermine connection with the breath – that is, it adds all the things that, vocally, make it more likely that you’ll go flat.

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.

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.

LABBS Convention 2023

Chorus champions Cheshire Chord Company: with thanks to LABBS social media for the picChorus champions Cheshire Chord Company: with thanks to LABBS social media for the pic

Last weekend took me to Harrogate to spend the weekend with my friends from the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers. Apart from a short stint of contest MCing on the Saturday I was free of duties, so could focus on collecting hugs and listening to people sing, and the quality of both types of experience was of notably high quality.

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’.

On Tag-singing and Gender

bshop book coverThe end of September marked the twentieth anniversary of the completion of my first book. It was another 18 months in production, so we’re a way off the two-decade milestone for publication, but in terms of the shape of my life, the submission of the manuscript is the more vivid memory.

When it came out, the two chapters that got the biggest response from within the barbershop community were those dealing with, respectively, gender and tag-singing. And there are ways in which both of those dimensions of barbershop culture have changed in the interim, and also ways in which they haven’t.

On the face of it, gender would appear to have seen the biggest changes, with the embracing of both mixed barbershop ensembles, and the increasing presence of men’s and women’s ensembles at the same events – whether competing against each other (as in the Barbershop Harmony Society, BinG!, and IABS), or in parallel contests with separate rankings (as in the European championships and SNOBS/Northern Lights joint conventions). My chapter title of ‘Separate but Equal?’ would be less of an immediately obvious choice today.

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.

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