March 2022

Strictly/Frisson Double-Bill

Warm-up pic snapped at a particularly invigorating momentWarm-up pic snapped at a particularly invigorating moment

Last Thursday evening saw me coaching Strictly A Cappella, having spent the afternoon coaching Frisson quartet. Both ensembles are preparing for a concert coming up next week – and if you think the timing of the coaching is surprisingly close to the performance, you’d be right. Our plan had been to work together the week before, but Covid had other ideas.

Still, when you are working that close to a performance you get a very distinctive kind of energy and impetus to the experience. With both groups we romped through far more music than you would when digging deep at an earlier stage of preparation, with all attention focused on how to enhance the impact of music that is already essentially well under control.

Andy Allen on Chorus Processes

On Saturday, Andy Allen was invited to present at the quarterly Forum for MDs of choruses in the British Association of Barbershop Singers. For those who don’t know him, Andy is the brains behind the renaissance of Hallmark of Harmony, a once-great chorus that had by the mid-2000s fallen some way from its previous heights, while still being haunted by the memories of those past achievements. Andy led their transformation back to glory from around 2012, and they are the reigning British male chorus champions from 2019.

Now, Andy is a fine musician, but the thing I admire him for most is his skill and insight into building organisational structures and processes that bring out the best in the people around him. Indeed, one could hypothesise that one of the reasons he has such good people around him is his knack for figuring out how they can best make their contributions: there’s nothing like feeling useful to motivate people to stay involved.

LABBS Directors Day: Reflections on the Coaching Model

Rita Hulands has a genius for capturing pics of people immersed in what they're doingRita Hulands has a genius for capturing pics of people immersed in what they're doing

One of the features of last weekend’s Directors Day was hands-on practical work for all delegates. Faculty-led classes are a useful part of director training, but for skills-based learning you actually need to do the thing to get better at it. I had actually lined the model we used up to deliver in 2020, but we didn’t get to use it then. But it was ideal for our needs in 2022, as it all about connecting ear to gesture – that central driver of effective conducting that had been absent through the Zoom era.

The faculty met together the night before to do our own practical work. This doubles as both our opportunity to experience some input on our own directing before spending the main event helping everyone else, and the chance to work through the model so we’re all confident to deliver it to others.

LABBS Directors Day 2022


Almost two years to the day since the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers last held an in-person education event, we gathered in Coventry on Saturday for a day of director training. We had a curriculum built round various aspects of the recovery process all choruses are going through at the moment, underpinned by practical work for all delegates that focused on the relationship between listening and conductor gesture. This is the central element of the conductor’s craft, and precisely what had been ripped out of the process during the whole Zoom era.

A recurrent theme in this blog after these kinds of events is the sense of coming home with a full note-book. That cliché becomes meaningful again after such an education drought. For sure, there have been all kinds of online events to attend as either leader or delegate, and I learned things from both types of participation, but the richness and depth of learning you get with a room full of people is just in another league. I had conversations with a number of people about how we’d got to the point last year where we were just running on empty, and how nourishing it felt to finally spend time in person with other directors. The full pages of our notebooks reflect the refilling of our spirits.

The Performer’s Inner Family

bodykeepsthescoreI’ve recently finished reading The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk. Its primary focus is the treatment of trauma, a specialised pursuit that has no direct relevance to my personal or professional lives. But in the process of explaining the difficulties experienced by people who have been damaged by shock, tragedy or abuse, he gives many and varied insights into how our internal landscapes - our memories, our sense of self - work.

One chapter particularly resonated with an experience of musicianship I have observed in both others and myself and called out for some reflection. Chapter 17 deals with a form of treatment called Internal Family Systems therapy, and is predicated on the idea that the self isn’t a single, unitary entity, but rather a mosaic of different parts.

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