August 2015

Learning with Lemov: Without Apology

In my early years as a lecturer, I was teaching a class on music analysis one day, when a student asked, ‘And why are we learning this?’ It’s the kind of question that can come over as quite confrontational, especially when you are feeling new to the game. But it’s also a good question to ask every so often. So I talked for a short while about why I thought the method we were looking at was useful to musicians (I suspect it was Schenker, but can’t actually remember for sure). The student accepted my answer, and we went on with the class, all of us feeling some relief that we weren’t wasting our time together.

This incident came back to me as I read Doug Lemov’s principle of teaching Without Apology. If we implicitly (or indeed explicitly) apologise for the content we deliver or the people we deliver to it, we lower expectations about both the achievements that are possible or the rewards that come from achieving it. If we don’t believe in what and who we teach/conduct, who will?

So that’s a principle that’s easy to agree with in the abstract, but let’s look at some of the ways it can play out in a choral context.

Confidence, Competence and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

If you've not seen this movie, I'd recommend it for all kinds of reasons, including its illustration of the Dunning-Kruger EffectIf you've not seen this movie, I'd recommend it for all kinds of reasons, including its illustration of the Dunning-Kruger EffectI wrote some time ago about the relationship between confidence and competence, and how when prioritising learning needs the former can often act as a reasonable proxy for the latter. There was, however, some interesting psychological research towards the back end of the last century that identified circumstances in which this correlation not only breaks down but becomes positively misleading.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect refers to the way that people who are grossly incompetent at a skill will cheerfully think they are quite good at it, as below a certain skill threshold you lack the knowledge and awareness to recognise how truly bad at something you are. Conversely, experts routinely underestimate how much better they are then the merely competent because one of the hallmarks of expertise is being able to do something fluently and without struggle.

This means that if you meet someone who describes an activity as ‘ not that hard’, they are likely to be either very very good at it or very very bad.

Creating a Charismatic Encounter: LABBS Directors Weekend, Part 5

Final Thoughts

Well, not final thoughts ever about this event. In fact, I have several stacks of notes on things I learned or observed or discovered during the course of the weekend that I have yet to get around to writing about. It was after all intended to be the kind of event that would affect its participants for months if not years into the future. But I think I’m nearly done processing my thoughts about it as a charismatic encounter.

Okay, that’s weird. I stopped to have a think after writing that first paragraph, then after a few minutes looking back to the start of the event, remembering what it felt like as people arrived, I realised my pulse was faster and my adrenaline levels back up again. Even while I was remembering how pleasantly surprised I had been to find myself feeling calmer and less nervous than I had expected.

Creating a Charismatic Encounter: LABBS Directors Weekend, Part 4


The key marker of the charismatic encounter isn’t, as is commonly supposed, anything to do with the personal qualities of a leader, but in the emotional experience of the participants. The characteristic sensation is a heightened, emotionally labile state of euphoria and love, that theorist of charisma have called ‘communion’ or ‘flux’.

Things that a leader does are often implicated in creating (or indeed preventing) this feeling, principally providing a Cause to line people’s sense of purpose up in the same direction, and a sense of Crisis to energise them into action. But how that emotional energy operates within the group depends significantly on the structure of interpersonal bonds within that group. Three factors are particularly important in setting this up, and this is how I factored them into my planning for the LABBS Directors Weekend in July.

Learning with Lemov: What To Do

This is another technique presented by Doug Lemov in his collection of methods for classroom discipline that, to my mind, resonates strongly with his techniques for actual teaching. It’s quite simple, but very powerful: if you want someone to do something, tell them exactly what actions they need to take.

To elaborate: quite often if children (well, people) fail to follow an instruction, it’s not that they’re being deliberately obstructive, merely incompetent. An instruction such as ‘Behave yourself!’ is ambiguous; it tells the child they’re doing something wrong, but doesn’t state what’s actually required. Even the more specific, ‘Stop fidgeting!’ only makes it clear what’s wrong, not how to fix it.

‘Please sit down and face this way,’ gives a nice clear to-do list, and even a child who is in something of a bolshy mood might find it easier to just to get on with it than continue to resist in the face of such calm clarity.

Creating a Charismatic Encounter: LABBS Directors Weekend, Part 3

Cause, Crisis, and our Guest Educator


My last post on this subject talked about how I had set up the framing values in the delegate pack, curriculum, and specific activities of last month’s LABBS Directors Weekend as a typical cause and crisis in order to facilitate a charismatic encounter.* And the first in this series talked a little about the reputational aura that surrounded our guest educator, Dr Jim Henry, and how this likewise helped our delegates give themselves over to the experience.

Before moving onto the aspects of the event that created the euphoric bonds of communion, I thought it worth discussing in a little more detail how Jim himself deployed elements of the charismatic toolkit.

Jim both rehearses and teaches directors to rehearse using the Cause of sincerity: ‘Not what, but why’. For him, it is vital that singers should be given space to feel the music and be expressive for themselves. Instilling ‘interpretation’ by a series of technical instructions (get louder here, pause there, etc) not only produces a mechanical, device-led performance, but robs singers of the opportunity to invest their own emotions in what they do.

Fascinating Lyrics, and Another Widget


Thursday took me back for a second visit to Fascinating Rhythm in South Gloucestershire, this time to focus on the second of their new contest pieces they are preparing for the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers Convention in the autumn. They had sung through it to me the week before, which meant I could arrive prepared with a sense of the ways I could be most immediately helpful. The back-to-back visits also allowed us to revisit the work we had done the week before and make sure that was getting embedded nicely (which it was).

Both the songs the chorus is currently working on have specific musical challenges defined by the primary area of interest in the material.* Last week it was rhythm, this week lyrics. I was reflecting on this on the way home, and wondering if it is always going to be the case that the thing that makes a song distinctive and special is also the element that makes the most pressing technical demands on the performers.

Bristol A Cappella

Assistant director James leading the warm-upAssistant director James leading the warm-up
Tuesday night took me back down to Bristol, this time to the heart of the University district, to work with a relatively new mixed group, Bristol A Cappella. I mention the university not because the chorus is particularly connected with it (though a handful of the members are), but because their rehearsal venue is within a very few minutes’ walking distance of two of my addresses from my student days. The journey there had that odd quality of deep familiarity and strangeness you get returning to places you used to know well but have not seen for a long time.

Anyway, once inside a building I had walked past hundreds of times but never previously entered, it became much more like any normal coaching visit, with a group of willing singers and the opportunity to mess with their heads.

In the event, the head I ended up messing with the most was their director’s. Iain Hallam had the personal courage and trust in his ensemble to put working on his technique firmly on the agenda as part of our work, and that turned out to be a most productive way in to helping his singers achieve more.

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