October 2015

On the Usefulness of Humming

After one of my ‘Make Your Nerves Work For You’ classes at BinG! Harmony College, one of the participants came up and remarked that I had mentioned humming in several different contexts, and could I give her a list of the different uses it has. My reply was: that sounds like a follow-up blog post. So here it is. A little way after the event, but there’s been quite a lot of stuff going on just lately that I wanted to blog about as it happened.

I suppose I should start with humming as a form of singing. As an activity to use in the warm-up, it is a nice gentle (and safe) way to start phonation and get the voice moving - I guess it would be possible to hum with voice-damaging tension if you deliberately tried to, but it’s pretty unlikely to happen by default. And while you’re at it, you can focus on activating the resonant cavities in your head to enhance both the richness and brightness of your sound.

Developing the Director-Chorus Bond with Avon Harmony

And the traditional warm-up shot before I get started...And the traditional warm-up shot before I get started...Last Saturday took me down to work with Avon Harmony in Bristol. I last worked with them back in 2012 when their director, Alex, was relatively new in the role. You could see how much he had worked on his technique in the intervening time, and how he was being rewarded with a much more consistent and resonant sound. We spent much of the day mapping out where the next stages of development are going to lie.

First up, though, was one basic bit of conductorly bad habit that we needed to deal with. Like many directors, Alex was frequently tempted into mouthing the words. I have tried various methods to help directors break this habit over the years, often involving holding things in their mouths. Straws are good, as blowing into a straw is good for the vocal mechanism, so gives a positive benefit in how the director models their bodily set-up as well as inhibiting the habit you’re trying to eliminate.

Surrey Harmony and the Musical Music Team

Rubric for rehearsal pacing: using my special 'almost legible' writingRubric for rehearsal pacing: using my special 'almost legible' writingThursday night saw me doing another session for a chorus’s music team, this time with Surrey Harmony. It was a rather different dynamic from my last session - a similar number of people, but this time the entire team from a single chorus rather than a couple from each of several choruses. What we lost in the opportunity to compare experience between different ensembles we gained in the opportunity to develop mutual understanding and shared working methods within the group.

(As an aside: there is a truism lurking in there about the learning process. What you can learn in any given scenario is to some extent a function of your own needs, beliefs and habits, but it is also a function of who you are learning with.)

Yours in Harmony

And another stage-shoe-shot, for the same reasonAnd another stage-shoe-shot, for the same reason

My visit to Brunel Harmony was followed the next day by a coaching day with Yours in Harmony just down the road in Torquay. This chorus is also preparing for the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers Convention at the end of the month, but for them it will be their first time. As a chorus, they have a several years of experience behind them competing in festivals of various sizes, but it is they have only recently affiliated to a barbershop organisation.

So, in some ways, they agenda was the same as the day before - polishing and confidence-building - as they are at the same point in the preparation cycle. But in other ways it was quite different, as they are juggling a lot of unknowns - they know how to perform, but very few of them really know what to expect from a barbershop convention.

Building Confidence at Brunel

Rehearsing in stage shoes is also good for the confidenceRehearsing in stage shoes is also good for the confidenceSaturday took me back down to Saltash for a follow-up visit to my session with Brunel Harmony last month. With only three weeks to go before Convention, the agenda was one of polishing the performance, and building confidence. One of the first confidence-inducing things to note was that I could hear that they had taken on what we had worked on last time and really embraced them. Bubbling had greater stamina, and the characterisation was embedded in both vocal colour and body language.

We balanced our day between attention to detail and holistic work. The nearer you get to performance, the less you really want to get the Manager on duty, so it’s not the point in the cycle to focus on technique. But where there are details that are getting away - the odd chord that isn’t locking, the odd phrase that loses energy - then finding the means to bring them under control increases confidence as it removes distractions for the singers as well as for the audience.

BinG! Harmony College: Further Thoughts

The women's chorus in the final concertThe women's chorus in the final concert

I mentioned in my last post about the BinG!* Harmony College that they held a contest on the first evening to select the quartets to compete in their Convention next March. This was useful not just for the coaches to starting diagnosing learning needs, but it was a valuable part of the overall learning experience. And over the four days of the college, there were three general sessions structured around performances, and I have been reflecting on what they contributed to the overall effectiveness of the event.

BinG! Harmony College: Initial Impressions

This was the view from my bedroom window...This was the view from my bedroom window...I’m starting writing this post on the train along the Rhine valley from Oberwesel to Frankfurt at dawn. After several days of glorious autumnal sunshine, the clouds are hanging down over the hilltops. In both guises, you can see why the early Romantics were so willing to mythologise this area.

I was about to write that this is almost incidental to the joy and richness the last few days have seen at BinG! Harmony College, but then I thought - maybe the setting helps more than you think. I suddenly remembered how I found myself at culturally rich events in green hilly landscapes in different countries in successive weeks of summer 2009 and wondering to what extent a landscape facilitates artistic growth.

Anyhow, the view is such that I am pretty sure I won’t get this post finished in this one trip, but I wanted to start getting the ideas down while the impressions are fresh.

Dr Jim’s Lemov Moments

At the moment when Jim Henry served as guest educator at the Directors Weekend I ran for the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers back in July, I had just spent two months dipping into Doug Lemov’s intensely useful book Teach Like a Champion. Having by then written a good handful of blog posts about how Lemov’s classroom techniques can play out in the choral rehearsal (and having made notes for more posts, which came along later), my brain was primed to spot them in action. And Dr Jim - seamlessly and without fanfare - provided a walking compendium of their application throughout the weekend.

Here are some of Dr Jim’s Lemov’s moments. You can see him in action in the clip above, but these comments come from notes made over the entire three days

The Meaning of Keys at Green Street Blues


Sunday saw the LABBS Convention-preparation season continue with my friends from Green Street Blues. They are taking two of my arrangements to contest this year, one that they commissioned and first performed a few years back, and another newly arranged for them earlier this year.

As might be expected from this programme, we spent far more time on the new song, exploring its structure as a means to develop the expressive shape of the performance, in particular in relation to the pattern of tonal centres the arrangement uses.

(This is fun. I am always careful not to spoil the big reveal when premieres are coming up, so I won’t tell you what song it is. But I can tell you which keys bits of it are in, and leave you to try and guess what song it could be. The original song stays in one key throughout, so you’ll be guessing from the emotional content of the lyrics. If you don’t want to play the guessing game, of course, then just come along to Bournemouth next month and they’ll sing it to you.)

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