April 2011

The Single-Sex Chorus and the Single-Sex Director

Well, yes, directors don’t get a choice about this – we’re either male or female, and even if you go for re-assignment, you’re still one or the other. It’s like whether or not to play repeats in Mozart sonatas – not something you can fudge. You do get a choice about how much you make a feature or downplay your gender identity in your interactions with your choir, but even here the choice isn’t only in your own hands. As some of our past discussions about conducting and gender showed, even those conductors who wish to ‘leave their gender at the door’ may still be ‘read’ in gendered terms by their singers.

Today’s subject isn’t the general question of gender and directing, however, but the specific question of the dynamics between a director and a single-sex choral group.

On Over-articulation 1: the Vocal Approach

Several times over the last few months, I’ve found myself helping singers overcome a tendency to chew their words as they enunciate them. So I’ve been thinking not only about techniques to help smooth the lines out, but also what underlies the habit in the first place. Over-articulation is an endearing feature of Nick Park animations, after all, but less helpful in choral contexts.

One origin of the habit, I suspect, is the way that the practices of the British cathedral tradition infiltrate so widely into the rest of our musical life. And while there is much that is wonderful about that, not all its habits necessarily translate directly into other contexts. The statement ‘You can never have too much consonant!’ is a valid statement when you’re working in an acoustic that is better for atmospheric effects than intelligibility of text, but in a small, dry room produces a result that is rather over-mannered.

But this is not the whole story, of course.

Should You Delegate the Warm-up?

Some choral directors take the warm-up at the start of the rehearsal, while others delegate the task to an assistant director or vocal coach. And there are some quite dogmatic views in either direction that one or the other approach is better than the other. It would be quite easy to find a wishy-washy, it-depends kind of position on the matter, but actually I find that once you have identified what it depends on, I become somewhat opinionated once again!

So, the situation in which it is absolutely right for the director to take the warm-up is when the director is using it as part of the unfreezing process that sets up the choir’s capacity to effect change during the rehearsal. If the vision for the warm-up is that it is not merely about the physical readiness to sing but also about building the shared ethos of the ensemble, having the director there setting the agenda from the get-go gives a clear message that the warm-up is an integral part of the process.

Myelin and Musical Analysis

schenkeriannotationI recently read Daniel Coyle’s book, The Talent Code, which is all about the neurology of excellence. The central theme is that certain forms of deep practice enable the brain to develop in ways that allow you to get very good at something. The key process involves the way neurons get wrapped in a substance called myelin, which has the effect of ‘insulating’ the activated neural path so that it can fire ever more quickly and efficiently.

There were several key elements to the type of activity that leads to these highly myelinated paths. Repetition is important (the neurons that fire the most get insulated the most), as is working at the outer edge of your competence: making mistakes and correcting yourself is an integral part of the process. Musicians know this: there is a difference between actually practising and just playing through stuff. Even ‘worthy’ activities like technical drills don’t add much if you just do them rather than practise them.

On Impulse Control

I was recently re-reading Mark Forster’s helpfully-titled book Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play and – as you often find on re-visiting books – noticed a point that hadn’t particularly struck me before. The book as a whole is very good at getting inside the psychology of procrastination, of what’s going on when we resist doing things that feel a bit too hard. The particular issue that caught my attention this time is when you’re getting down to something and your brain suddenly pops up with something else that needs your attention.

Coping with Membership Churn

One of the conversations I had several times during my recent visits to the London City Singers was about the challenge of dealing with a high turnover of membership. This is something that all choirs face to some extent, but LCS are particularly affected by it because of the demographic of their membership: young professionals working in an international industry.

So, having a significant change of membership from one year to the next presents difficulties with maintaining both skills and repertoire.

Waiting for the Magic to Happen

Back in December, Dan Newman wrote a wonderful post about the living through that moment in the arranging process that lies between the groundwork and the realisation. This is how he describes the experience:

I’m currently in the Land of Potential under the Shadow of OverAmbition. It’s a scary place.

This is the point in the process I have described as ‘magic happens here’, and I think anyone who arranges regularly will empathise exactly with Dan’s description of what this moment is like.

Back to the City

LCSwarmupTuesday night saw me returning to the London City Singers for a refresher on the things we’d worked on at their retreat back in February. This gave me another chance to learn about how people retain things we’ve worked on together – a central part of my ongoing quest to become ever more effective as a coach, and to understand the inner workings of my fellow singers.

Harmony in Holland

The weekend's judging panel: Alison, Alan, David, Liz, Linda, Rod and AnnekeThe weekend's judging panel: Alison, Alan, David, Liz, Linda, Rod and AnnekeI spent last weekend in Veldhoven for the combined Holland Harmony and the Dutch Association of Barbershop Singers convention. It was a nice size of convention – with a total of 21 each of competing quartets and choruses, it had enough participants to give a good sense of occasion, but neither contest was too long to feel like an endless slog. And there was time for every group to have a follow-up coaching session, too, which is so much more useful for onward development than mere spoken or written feedback.

Having judged at the last Holland Harmony convention two years ago, it seemed to me that both the number and standard of competitors had increased noticeably.

Hysteresis and Performance: Getting the Extra Push

I wrote recently about how musical contest may be implicated in maintaining an ensemble’s level of performance. The external attribution of level by individuals in whom a degree of authority is invested shapes an ensemble’s self-image and thus makes them more likely to perform at a similar level in future. ‘Maintaining’ here is both a good thing and a bad thing of course. It involves not deteriorating, but it also entails that sense of getting stuck: you continue to work, but somehow nothing seems to improve. (Though of course, the continuing to work is why you don’t get worse either.)

So, the question is: what is going on when an ensembledoes succeed in making a significant change of level? On the face of it, there appear to be three main scenarios:

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