September 2015

Developing Section Leaders

Since I had to travel down to Plymouth the day before my coaching day with Brunel Harmony, their director Delyth Knight had a brainwave about how to use the evening before. Her family are involved in the musical leadership of several choruses in the area, so she felt it would be a good opportunity to offer a training session to section leaders/music team members from several of them together.

Interestingly, I have been toying with offering training for music teams as a specific service for a while, as it strikes me as a way to support the ensemble’s development in a way that could add significant value relative to the time spent. And, whilst there are plenty of training opportunities to develop the musical and vocal skills these roles need, there is relatively little support for how to develop the coaching and mentoring skills they often entail.

Then, while I was toying with these ideas, two directors got in touch independently to ask about them. It is starting to look like an idea whose time has come.

Brunel Harmony and the Integrated Song

BrunelI spent Saturday working with Brunel Harmony on the contest package they are preparing for the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers Convention in October. They had got to the point where things were generally in place - music and choreography largely embedded, and the overall concept and intentions clear - so what it needed next was a combination of polishing of execution and bringing out the details.

What we found ourselves doing to achieve this, though, was integrating technical control of the various performance elements with a sense of characterisation and narrative. It was a classic example of how you can start with any one item of technique, and find that as you explore it, it turns out to be connected with all kinds of other areas, both technical and expressive.

Soapbox: ‘Creativity’ is Not an Excuse for Unprofessionalism

I’ve been wondering for a while if I’m going to have a rant about this, and it seems the thought won’t go away so here goes. The following graphic has been doing the rounds on social media and it has been irritating me quite disproportionately for what is intended to be a friendly and empathy-inducing little picture.
To start with, let’s acknowledge the psychological truths that it does capture with some success. The red phase says something valid about how resistance to a task is proportionate to its demands on your brain’s background-processing functions. The things that are the hardest to start are the ones that, once embarked upon, will invade your dreams. And the flurry of work up to the deadline reminds us about the end-effect, and the way it so helpfully refreshes attention as we head into the finish line.

Structure, Ornament and Barbershop Arranging

On Sunday I visited my old chums from the LABBS Music Category at their September judging seminar. (Well, some of my old chums, plus a new addition since I moved on, which was fun.) They had invited me back to offer a session on arranging, following up on an exercise they had all undertaken as part of the process to recertify as judges back in the Spring. This was great, as it meant that not only did everyone have a common example we could work with as a central focus, but I could use their work as the basis for my preparation, as this told me exactly what they were already good at versus where help might be useful.

As I built up my list of useful things to discuss, I gradually realised that some things that - on the surface - look like different subjects are actually part of the same issue. And as we worked through the ideas together, it occurred to me that the way barbershop has traditionally theorised its harmonic language actually obscures this issue to an extent.

Phrase-end Embellishments and Voicing

swipeFurther to my post a few weeks back about phrase-end swipes, I was recently looking at some arrangements to offer advice on, and noticed that the categories of swipe behaviour I discussed there could offer a useful framework for making decisions about voicing. In particular, the shape and internal energy of the embellishment can usefully inform which voice(s) move, and in what directions at the ends of phrases.

My last post in this subject was specifically about swipes, but I think the categories work for the harmonic content for echoes as well. Indeed, the question of who is doing what, to what effect is more immediately audible in an echo, since the use of extra word sounds draws attention to the embellishing activity.

But (and here is a nice new little guideline that I have only really articulated to myself as I type here), the expressive shape of a phrase-end embellishment should make sense in a purely harmonic sense as a swipe, whether or not we decide to add extra texture or rhythmicising effects through added word sounds. (You know, in much the same way that the delivery of a melody should make sense even to someone who doesn’t speak the language it’s sung in.)

Making Ear Contact with Albacapella

Warm-ups with bunting!Warm-ups with bunting!

On Wednesday night I literally had a flying visit (plane up to Scotland Wednesay afternoon, plane back to Birmingham Thursday morning) to work with Albacapella, a relatively new ladies barbershop chorus up in Aberdeenshire. They started about 3 years ago, and are just heading into what will be their second trip to compete in the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers Convention this autumn.

The main challenge they are currently grappling with is embedding skills that they currently exercise at the level of conscious competence (i.e. they can do if they specifically focus on them) into automated processes that they do as a matter of course. Actually, that sentence could describe pretty much any choral group at any stage of development, but, with only a short history together as an ensemble, and having taken a major leap forward in skill acquisition at a retreat earlier in the year, Albacappella are particularly aware of which specific skills they are aiming to integrate.

More on Mouthing Words (and why not to)

The subject of why directors so often feel the urge to mouth the words as they conduct, and why it is a good idea to overcome this urge is a subject I have visited before. And I don’t need to say very much more than I did last time, so this will be a rather short post. But there was a communal penny-drop moment at the LABBS Directors Weekend back in July on this topic which I thought it worth sharing with you.

It was in one of the coaching sessions - three directors, half a chorus and a coach working together for 45 mins on helping the directors develop more effective technique. Often the directors wanted to work on how to become more expressive and communicative in their gestures, and often the answer was to do less at a full-body level so that the nuances of finger and facial expression weren’t constantly competing with other body parts for attention.

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