September 2009

Unconscious Competence and the Brain

competenceI recently read Marco Iacoboni’s book Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect with People. I would highly recommend it, despite a couple of reservations about its style.* It came out shortly after I had finished my book on choral conducting, and I think it’s fair to say that had it come out 8 months earlier there would have been more mirror neuron talk in my book. On the other hand, several of the other key theoretical sources I drew on also feature heavily in the Iacoboni, and I am very relieved to say that I find this book develops and deepens my understanding of the neurological processes that underlie the practices I discuss rather than fundamentally changing them.

One small corner of the Iacoboni that I found interesting from a general perspective of teaching and learning was his assertion that we use different parts of the brain for newly-learned and well-practised tasks. He says:

Getting Famous as an Arranger

Happy Together sheet musicMy new friend Mark wrote the following in an email to me a couple of week's back:

Maybe you could blog a bit about how you got your first arrangement accepted for publication by the [Barbershop Harmony] Society. I'd be very interested to hear your story.

So, this post is for him.

Sunday Night at the London Palladium

Last Sunday, the best of British barbershop conspired to present a show at the London Palladium as the climax to the national ‘barbershop awareness week’. I had a couple of personal highpoints, with NoteOrious and Eu4ia both singing my arrangements – the latter having commissioned theirs specifically for this show (Christine Aguilera's 'Candyman').

It was a long show – a good three hours – but it did a very good job of sustaining interest. Given that all the acts were from basically the same kind of a cappella world, this is a testament to some very effective programming – it could have become very samey, but didn’t. I’ve been finding it useful to analyse what went in to making the structure so effective.

The Inner Game of Choral Rehearsals 4: Trust

Along with Awareness and Will, Trust makes up the trio of central principles of the Inner Game. In some ways, Trust is the most fundamental of the three: the heart of the inner game is about getting your judgemental, conscious self out the way and letting your carefully-honed skills get on with the job.

Choosing Suitable Music

Song Persona
This article was first published earlier this year in Voicebox, the magazine for LABBS members. I'm reproducing it here in the wake of a conversation with a friend from Holland who was developing a similar checklist for a workshop she'll be running. It was originally written for a barbershop audience, but generalises quite well to other genres if you subsititute their classic musical features for the style-specific ones mentioned here.

When people choose music to sing in contest, they think a lot about its suitability in terms of style – is it barbershop, in the terms defined by the contest and judging system we have adopted from the Barbershop Harmony Society.

But there is an equally important dimension to suitability, and this one applies to all the music we sing, not just for contest: suitability to performer. However great a song and arrangement is in itself, it will only produce a thrilling performance if it is a good fit for your quartet or chorus.

So, how do you decide if a song/arrangement is suitable for you?

Green Street Blues

greenstreetbluesI had a trip down to Kent on Tuesday this week to work with Green Street Blues, a chorus based in Sevenoaks. As a group which has recently acquired a lot of new members, they gave me a very specific remit: to help them understand how their music was put together, and why the composers and arrangers might have made the kinds of decisions they did. That is my idea of a fun way to spend an evening, so we were well set to get on together.

The Inner Game of Choral Rehearsals 3: Will

The second central Inner Game principle is Will. This is about the performer’s capacity to choose how they do something, to take control. But again, crucially, it’s not about getting it right and all the judgements that implies. Rather, it assumes that the ability to do something in one way rather than another is a more fundamental skill that is not only logically separable from, but actually precedes the decision about how it should be done.

Gesture and Thought

halseyOne of the most enlightening books I have ever read is David McNeill’s Gesture and Thought. I drew on its theoretical findings for my central discussions of conducting gesture in my recently published book on choral conducting. It is a wonderful thing when you find a theory that explains so clearly things that you see in real life.

Tone Bianca Dahl on Communication

Tone Bianca DahlTone Bianca DahlOne of the sessions at the ABCD Convention at the end of August was workshop on communication between choir, conductor and audience led by Tone Bianca Dahl. Tone teaches choral conducting at the Norwegian Academy of Music, and her book on this subject has recently been translated into English. Her central question in the presentation was: what creates the magic?; and can we create it at will?

The Inner Game of Choral Rehearsals 2: Awareness

Awareness is the first of the three cornerstones of the inner game approach. It refers to the non-judgemental perception of what we’re doing. Instead of the kind of self-monitoring that immediately classifies what we’re doing as either adequate or inadequate, it aims simply to get a clearer a picture of what’s going on, without leaping to judgement. It’s rather like the NLP principle that there’s no failure, only feedback, and involves replacing the instinct to say to yourself, ‘that was crap,’ with ‘what happened there?’

Harmony ReSpires


On Wednesday evening I had another visit to coach my friends at Harmony InSpires, near Oxford. I last heard them back in November 2008, when they had recently acquired a lot of new members, and it was good to see that lots of those new members were still there, and more new ones arriving on a regular basis. Whether you have a net inflow or outflow of singers is always a good indication as to the health of a chorus!

We spent much of the evening thinking about the breath, and the way it is the key to delivering musical flow.

ABCD Effigy

Farnham Youth Choir in open rehearsalFarnham Youth Choir in open rehearsalThe August bank holiday weekend always has far more fun things going on than one could possibly go to, and this year I spent it in Winchester at the Association of British Choral Directors Convention. I was presenting on the Sunday morning, but had the rest of the time available to hear other people’s sessions, mooch about the Exhibition, go to the gala concert and generally have a fun time hanging out with a bunch of interesting people.

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