October 2014

Scunthorpe Festival of Choirs

Sunday took me up to Scunthorpe to participate in a Festival of Choirs at the rather wonderful Baths Hall. It was an ambitious day’s music-making, with an afternoon of workshops followed by a combined concert involving nine choirs in the evening. It became clear in conversation that it had also attracted a considerable number of singers who weren’t in the concert choirs along to the workshops (and, I would hope, as audience members). The place was thronged, and had a really lively buzz about it. They were already plotting to repeat the experience next year.

I had been asked to do a workshop on barbershop, running it twice with two different groups. It was an interesting challenge - we had just over an hour in which to both introduce the central elements of the style and get a good amount of meaningful music-making done. It would be all too easy to spend the whole time grappling with notes and words without finding space to put the resultant chords and meanings into context. Equally, it was important that the participants spent a lot more time singing than I did talking.

Learning Jokes...

Or, I should say, the role of jokes in learning. Although I’ve not been out doing comedy gigs in the last handful of months (for various reasons which I’ve shared with my comedy friends, but not blogged about here as they’re tangential at best to my musical life), the things I have learned in that world continue to resonate pleasingly with my core identity as musician and musical facilitator.

Now, I’ve always played for laughs in my teaching, especially with larger groups. And it’s actually much easier to crack jokes successfully in a teaching context than it is in a stand-up comedy context, because you know your audience much better. One thing that going out telling jokes to roomfuls of strangers teaches you is to appreciate it when you come across a room full of people about whom you know a lot in terms of background, interests and cultural referents, if only in the one dimension that brings them all together.

Choral Values, an Addendum

magentalogoPartway through my recent reflections on choral values, I was suddenly visited with a memory from Magenta’s early days that I had not thought about for ages. I thought it might have slipped into one of those other posts as an example, but the place for it never arose. So, I thought I’d just share it with you in a different post.

Magenta started via a workshop evening which I advertised around the area and at which I gave a taster of the kind of things we’d be doing, then invited the attendees to be the founder members of this new choir. Those who were interested filled in an application form, first half of which was basically contact info, and the second half of which asked four questions:

Conductors in Cornwall

Delegates and singersDelegates and singers

I spent yesterday down in Saltash, near Plymouth, running a workshop for choral directors from the area. It was organised and hosted by Brunel Harmony, who also provided singers for the directors to be coached working with, and involved 19 current, assistants and aspiring directors from 10 local choirs and choruses, with levels of experience ranging from decades in the job to complete novices.

It can be quite difficult for people living in the country’s peripheries to get up to training events, which are - not surprisingly - usually held in more central regions. So it makes a lot of sense to import workshops instead of travelling out to them, not just logistically and economically, but also in terms of the opportunities for networking. However exciting it is to meet conductors from across the country, it is more useful, on a day-to-day basis, to get to know your neighbours.

Quantum Coaching

Same sofa, same hippo, different quartetSame sofa, same hippo, different quartetSunday afternoon brought a new quartet, Quantum, around for some coaching. They’re new as a quartet, but have a considerable amount of barbershop experience between them, and, oddly enough, the only one I didn’t already know happens to live just round the corner from me. So that was handy for them.

For any quartet in their early days - no matter how much prior experience they have between them - one of the primary tasks is building the ensemble. All their previous quartets will have developed musicianship and vocal control and performance skills which will come in useful for this task, but the actual crafting of their new sound and modes of delivery is still from scratch. So, we started straight in on duetting as the primary tool for all the singers to learn about each other’s voices.

More on Choral Values...

It’s probably not a surprise to hear that I’m still thinking about this question of a choir’s values. If you’ve hung out with me at all in this blog over the years, you’ll recognise that it has that pleasing combination of being something wide-ranging and abstract to theorise about, but which is also intensely practical. Exactly the kind of thing that gets me all lit up and interested.

Anyway, having noticed how a clear sense of your choir’s values is most urgently needed at the moments of crisis, I have been thinking about things we can do during the ebb-and-flow of choral life to build a secure and shared set of values so we have it ready and in good order when we really need it. Moments of crisis draw bring the values to the surface, but they’re really not the best time to start working out what we believe in.

The three main areas I have been thinking about are:

Choral Values...

When I was mulling over Digger McDougal’s four pillars of motivation the other day, I said I’d come back and have another think about values at a later date. Of the four pillars, it strikes me as the one that is most fundamental, but by the same token, the one most likely to be implicit rather than actively reflected upon.

So I got to thinking: how does a choir develop its values? And how do you identify the values your own choir holds?

At a BABS Directors College some years back, Chris Davidson introduced an exercise by which to identify your personal values. Ask three people, not necessarily people you are close to, but with whom you are reasonably well acquainted, to say in three words how they would describe you to someone who didn’t know you. The things that they all say are the values you currently live by.

Alliteratively Aural Adventures


Yes, I know it’s getting a bit self-referential to describe the title of a blog post in that blog post, but my usual approach of using either the ensemble’s name or its location as a starting point was running into difficulties. The adventures were down in Coulsdon, near Croydon, with Surrey Harmony - none of which words alliterate with what we were doing, which was a workshop on Aural Skills for Choral Groups (which does at least have an internal rhyme to its name).

One of the things I have reflected on periodically as a review my workshops and coaching sessions is the different kind of things you can deal with effectively at different stages of process of preparation for performance. When the music isn’t yet very familiar, you haven’t got the familiarity to dig into detail, but conversely, you have the freedom to explore big-picture questions of fundamental musical feel. When you’re getting near to the performance, you don’t want to get people questioning what they’re doing, but instead you want to hone and polish and focus.

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