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Building Confidence with Celtic Chords

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I spent a happy day on Saturday with Celtic Chords chorus down in Truro, with the remit to help them develop performing confidence. We approached this from a variety of angles; indeed it turns out that all kinds of development activities that you might think of in terms of vocal or musical skills can helpfully be addressed through the lens of how they contribute to performing confidence. And front and centre through all of them was the principle of why we perform: to share the delight that is music, to put joy into the hearts of others.

We started the day with a focus on vocal skills, since security in your technique facilitates security in performance. The essence of technique is being able to do something at will; having that sense of control over yourself means that you feel much less at the mercy of the vagaries of fate. And addressing this first meant that we continued to get the benefit of enhanced continuity of sound throughout the rest of the day.

We moved on to a focus on deep listening, to build bonds within the ensemble and to develop everyone’s skills of perception. Duetting builds insight into the overall musical shape. Everyone starts out knowing their own parts and having a generalised idea of the whole, but after listening to the other parts duet, they have a much clearer and more detailed idea of the whole musical texture, as well as a more nuanced perception of details of execution: synchronisation, tone matching, vowel shapes.

A very different listening experience comes from having people sing directly to each other in pairs. This is both quite an exposing activity compared to choral singing, and much more private. One of the insights to emerge from the experience was that the listeners found themselves feeling vulnerable as well as the singers.

This was a really useful thought to bring to a performance situation. We are used to thinking of the performer’s role as vulnerable compared to a safe audience, but it turns out that opening your heart as a listener also entails a degree of emotional risk. This makes a subtle but profound shift to the experience of the performing singer: our role isn’t to stand there exposed being judged by others, but to create a safe space for our listeners to open up to the beauty of music. The need to look after and care for our listeners is a great way to counteract our tendencies to self-consciousness.

We moved on from this to explore the interpersonal vulnerability and trust between MD and chorus. Their director Sian shares with many of us the instinct to express care for her singers by trying to do everything for them. So, I had her start them off on a song, then sit down and simply listen. Thus both she and the chorus learned how much they could do without her. Not only do they know the expressive shape of the music, but they have the teamwork and listening skills to coordinate with each and maintain the sense of ensemble.

The first time we did this, the first couple of lines had a bit of an ‘after you, after you’ dynamic, leading to a somewhat more expansive delivery than perhaps they would have chosen. So we did the exercise again, having noted that they all need to feel like musical leaders rather than followers and step forward through the music purposefully together. And this second time was magical; it had all the interactive teamwork of the first rendition, but delivered with the knowledge that they could do this and make it work. And without having to use brain capacity for directing, Sian was able to open herself up to the beauty and really absorb the care and love in their singing.

We started the day noting that the two things an audience needs from a performing ensemble are (a) trust in their skillset (they don’t want to be worrying if it’s all going to wrong) and (b) trust in their intent (they want to believe they are singing with good heart). By these measures, Celtic Chords were performance-ready before we did any work at all.

We returned to the idea of ‘performance-readiness’ later in the day, to work through how that doesn’t imply being a finished product. Arguably no musician ever is. Rather, performance is part of the journey; you learn different things there from what you can learn in rehearsal. The distraction of a new situation induces new, creative mistakes you’ve never made before; it likewise brings out new musical insights and communicative capacities that you wouldn’t otherwise discover.

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