Music-Team Training at Junction 14

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jcn14musteamI spent Saturday with the Music Team from Junction 14 chorus, delivering a bespoke workshop that touched on all three of the themes I offer for this kind of training, but with its main emphasis on Effective Rehearsal Skills. The team has welcomed two new section leaders into their posts within the last few months, so it was a good moment both to offer support to the less experienced members and to help the whole team feel more integrated as a unit.

One of the areas the team had identified in advance as something they’d like help with was knowing what to listen for in section rehearsals, and their director Hannah had suggested a checklist of target issues might be useful. It took very little time for the combined brains of the team to compile a healthy collection of things they could usefully attend to, and we then went through each systematically identifying what would be the compliment you’d give if you heard it being done well and what would be the to-do you’d ask for if it needed improving.

These, interestingly, are not always as parallel as you might imagine. Whilst the more specific technical points can be directly parallel (‘Well-supported phrase ends’/’Please support the phrase ends more’), other, more composite, aspects of performance would elicit a holistic compliment, but would need a more analytical to-do. For example, you’d celebrate maintaining the tonal centre, but if you’d not managed it, you are likely to need a to-do that addresses some aspect of singing technique - posture, breath support, placement, or shedding vocal tension.

Working through these lists together had two functions. One was to prime the section leaders, so they don’t go into rehearsal feeling like they’re working with a blank canvas, but have done a good deal of thinking in advance. The second was to get the benefit of each other’s brains in this preparation. One of the dangers of the section-leader structure is that you get each section developing the strengths of their particular leader, so it is useful to get them together every so often to cross-fertilise.

Several other points came out of the discussions and practical exercises that are obvious once you articulate them, but which I found useful to note:

  • The key thing in a section practice is to make a difference. Don’t worry unduly in the first instance about whether it is the most important or ‘right’ thing to work on - if it is something you can help the singers improve, that is a good use of all of your time. (When in doubt, work on posture and/or breathing will never be wasted.)
  • Section rehearsals are mostly about embedding and consolidating skills rather than acquiring new ones, which is more a function of full-chorus rehearsals. So, take your lead from what you’ve been working on together as a chorus, and use section practices as an opportunity to make sure everyone understands it and to offer targeted help as needed.
  • Learning notes together is an important function of section rehearsals, not to be under-rated. But as there will always be those who learn faster than others, it is useful to add in technique work as you go to keep the fast learners engaged with something to concentrate on through the extra couple of repetitions the less confident singers need.
  • It is good to develop our palette of adjectives for giving compliments. ‘Nice’* is a useful one (and can carry a variety of meanings with vocal inflections), but it is easy to over-use it. And if we say ‘lovely’ whenever we hear something that simply meets our expectations, it will be harder to give an appropriate compliment in response to something that is genuinely delightful. (Useful tip: if we just want to express recognition that they’ve done what we asked, ‘thank you’ does the trick quite well.)

The most striking thing for me, though, was also the simplest: witnessing the power of a spontaneous smile as recognition of achievement. The power is in two dimensions. First, it is fearsomely efficient and targeted. You know exactly when you have done something well when you see it, and it can happen within the course of the music so takes up no time whatsoever from the flow of the rehearsal. Second, it goes straight to your heart. Knowing that how you just sang something gave genuine joy to someone in your life is a very powerful encouragement to keep doing it well.

* I had a primary school teacher who banned the word ‘nice’ from our classroom, so I take a particular rebellious pleasure in using it. In much the same way I enjoy asking for the ‘smaller half’ of a shared treat.

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