October 2012

LABBS Convention 2012

The new convention venueThe new convention venueThe weekend saw the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers assemble at the Telford International Centre for their 36th Annual Convention. This was the first convention at this venue and, while in some ways it wasn't ideal (such as the limited availability of hotel space in walking distance), it did provide a very kind and honest stage for the singers to perform on. All the ensembles sounded like they were able to produce what they had prepared there without distraction and everyone I spoke to confirmed they had experienced it as a good performance environment. The team running the sound system deserve to feel very pleased with their work over the weekend.

Soapbox: The Sexual Politics of Volume

I have written before about the cultural discomfort with women singing loudly, and how some successful female singers have dealt with this. I'm going to get more pointed today, though, and specifically criticise the habit of some male coaches of systematically and radically reducing the volume at which the women they are working with sing.

First, I'm going to go out on a limb and say there is no such thing, in an absolute sense, as 'too loud' when you're talking about the unamplified human voice. When Isobel Baillie said, 'Never sing louder than lovely,' that was a statement about relative qualities, not absolutes.

So, is Charisma a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?

The conducting literature has a somewhat uncertain relationship with the concept of charisma. It is a quality that is in many ways central to the maestro myth, but actual conductors writing about their craft show a degree of mistrust about it. Charisma can be seen to be tricksy, manipulative, or a worrying tendency to 'believe your own bullshit'.*

There are three elements in particular that quite reasonably arouse mistrust:

  • The hijacking of the executive function: one of the more disturbing studies on the neurology of charisma showed how, when people believe they are in the presence of a charismatic leader, they suppress the use of their critical faculties in a manner akin to hypnosis
  • The potential for tyranny: the need for strong top-down control to keep the emotional energies in charismatic groups from breaking the group apart concentrates a lot of power in the leader’s hands
  • Charisma’s inherently expansionist agenda: charismatic groups are inherently proselytising - they set themselves up against the mainstream, and then seek converts. They are not, therefore, necessarily very comfortable neighbours

On Tension and Release

For my recent visit to Ireland Unlimited, part of my brief was to work with the chorus on the concept of ‘tension and release’. This is one of those useful notions we bandy about all the time, though it’s not until you have to explain them that you stop and think about them in detail. So these are some of the thoughts I had when I was preparing this session.

The metaphor of tension and release in music is a surprisingly global one. It works in multiple dimensions both musically and experientially.

So, in emotional or experiential terms we might think of it as:

Anticipation – Arrival
Unstable – Stable
Exertion – Relaxation
Desire – Fulfilment

Workshopping with the West Midlands Police Choir


I spent Saturday morning with the West Midlands Police Choir in central Birmingham, doing a half-day bespoke workshop on the theme of Developing the Ensemble. I have to say that, whilst my recent adventures have been most exciting, it was lovely to be working on my home patch for a change. It is quite a novelty to lead an event like this and still be home in time for lunch.

Within the major theme of how you turn a group of individuals, each with their own heart, brain and voice into a single performing unit, we had two main areas of focus: finding common approaches to using the voice, and opening up the ears and sense of mutual awareness between the singers.

Another Windsor Wednesday


Wednesday took me back to Windsor for a second visit to the Royal Harmonics. In some ways it feel like no time at all since I was last with them, but I couldn't help but notice that it was light when I arrived for my previous visit, but this time night had already fallen.

It was a pleasingly productive evening's work, with focused attention on several different pieces covering a wide range of musical and vocal issues. Their director, John Palmer, had some very clear agenda items for the songs he had picked to work on, but at the same time balanced his areas of interest with an openness for my diagnoses of a song's highest priorities for work. Sometimes the areas I picked up as the most important for attention were the same as the ones he had ear-marked to work on, whilst sometimes I brought up things that had not particularly been on his radar; either case was useful and interesting.

Ireland Unlimited

My Irish tour continued with a weekend’s work with Ireland Unlimited, the country’s premier barbershop chorus. Drawn from across the country, they meet for one day a month, and the skills developed centrally have also been significant in supporting and developing the skills in local choruses. I suspect Ireland Unlimited of having a significant hand in the improvement in performances I noticed when judging the IABS Convention this time last year.

The invitation to Ireland Unlimited’s retreat was the kernel around which my mini-tour had grown. I was working alongside Jon Conway, who has been working with IU on singing for some time, and as ever it was both stimulating and relaxing to cox-and-box with another coach. Having different faces in front of them keeps the chorus fresher, and we each get more chances to catch our breath and collect our thoughts, so our coaching is that much more focused and to the point. And of course it is always a joy and delight to see experienced colleagues in action and learn from them.

Nota Bene

notabeneMy coaching trip to Ireland continued with a day’s work near Dublin with Nota Bene quartet. They have formed under this name relatively recently, though three of them competed last year in Galway under a different name, and two have sung together in quartet for nearly five years now. This kind of profile offers both specific challenges such as adjusting existing vocal relationships to take account of the new singers’ voices and ways of feeling music, and specific advantages, with the know-how of the more experienced quartet singers supporting the newer additions.

Beating Time in Bray

beatingtimeThursday was the start of a short tour coaching women’s barbershop in Ireland. The first weekend of October has traditionally been the date for the Irish Association of Barbershop Singers’ annual convention, but this year was the first of a new pattern of holding it every two years to allow more space for other activities.

As it happens, there has been enough clamouring from the foreign visitors who flock to the Irish Convention each year about how much they’ll miss the event that the pattern may yet revert back to yearly. But in the meantime, these other activities have for some ensembles involved extra coaching sessions.

My first stop was Beating Time chorus in Bray, co. Wicklow. My remit here was twofold: to work with a new song the chorus are in the process of developing and to work the director and her deputies on conducting skills.

Arousal versus Nerves: What's in a Name?

The Yerkes-Dodson curveThe Yerkes-Dodson curveA recurrent theme in my posts on singing and adrenaline over the past year has been the Yerkes-Dodson curve, which shows us how the varying levels of engagement of the sympathetic nervous system affect our performance. The problems people report with things such as shortness of breath or a dry mouth or getting the shakes come not from the existence of adrenaline in the system, but simply from an excess. Some adrenaline is necessary if we are to do anything well, so the trick then becomes to manage our preparation so that the extra burst we get at the start of a performance lifts us into the sweet zone rather than tipping us over beyond it.

Part of this preparation happens immediately before the performance, and relates to how we may warm up differently for a performance compared to a regular rehearsal in order to manage this.

Riding the Wave of Melody


When I was writing up my visit to The Royal Harmonics back in August, an image that has long lurked in the back of my mind came into much more vivid focus: the idea of musical flow as water. The specific image that opened this image up was the association of the swell of melody with depth of feeling.

A melody that is sung note-to-note-to-note is somehow like a shallow puddle, with little wavelets little more than ripples. The peaks of the ripples are all the same height, and that height is only minimally above the surface of the water: they lap at the edge of the pool with no great effect. The ripples are also close together. So if you want your love-song to sound as shallow as a puddle, you should energise each note individually, but just by a bit, and not make much differentiation one from another.

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