Hearts Beating Strongly

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hb13mar11I had a return visit to Heartbeat Chorus in Cheshire on Sunday, to work in tandem with one of their other coaches, John Grant. John is an immensely efficient coach, effecting significant changes in performance with a few words and a brief demonstration, and it is both a pleasure and an education to watch him in action. I think the two things that lie at the heart of this efficiency are (a) his listening skills and (b) his ability to prioritise. In fact the two are linked: it is his acuity of perception that allows him to home in on precisely the issue that most needs attention.

The chorus is in good spirits, with their win at the Majestic Choir Festival in Torquay last month having given a useful confidence boost. But they are also developing rapidly, which brings its own inherent energy.

One of the things both coaches and choruses fret over is the question of retention: what can we each do to make sure the achievements of the coaching session become embedded in the group’s performance? Well, Heartbeat seem to have taken a distinctive take on this question, and rather than settling for retaining what we worked on back in January, they have consolidated and developed it. It is really quite exciting to come back after two months and hear the things we worked on then not merely subsisting in the performance, but coming to fruition.

We had an interesting experience during the afternoon within the process of duetting a passage. Regular readers will know that I promote this rehearsal technique as a way to give people an opportunity to listen - the people singing are learning some things, but those not singing can learn more. And through the process we had a lovely range of observations: comments on the musical structures, and on both technical and expressive dimensions of performance.

But after three or four combinations of parts, there was a ripple of mild anxiety starting to flow around the chorus. It was caused by one particular bar in which there was a slight synchronisation problem more often than not. You could see people thinking that it was the kind of thing that you’d notice but forgive if you heard it once, but it was really bothering them to hear it repeatedly.

I don’t like seeing people look anxious, so I had to point out that actually what they were experiencing was a significant improvement in their awareness of synchronisation. The slight error had been there all along, but when they were all singing, there hadn’t been so much space to notice it in particular. Taking the time to listen had given them the chance to develop a finer perception of these kinds of details. The reason it was now bothering them was not that their performance had got worse, it was that their expectations for the performance had increased.

It wasn’t a surprise, therefore, to find them sorting this moment out by the time we had run through all six combinations of parts. And then when we put the whole back together, there was that luminosity and clarity in the sound you get when people’s intuitive brains have made myriad minor adjustments to sort out tiny imperfections that you could never deal with if you tried to do it with conscious left-brain work. I’m not knocking the analytical part of the brain – we couldn’t make music without it – but it’s too a blunt tool for the minutiae of beauty.

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