Building Traditions with The Rhubarbs

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About to start the warm-up...About to start the warm-up...

Over dinner on Saturday night in Bonn I was informed that in that part of the world, doing something twice made a tradition, and doing something three times created a tradition that goes back to time immemorial. So with this second visit to coach The Rhubarbs had rendered our working together traditional.

This time we had two full days together, which allowed us not only to explore more different themes, but also to work on something one day and revisit after a night’s sleep to see which had embedded overnight, and which needed more work to secure them,

A recurrent theme throughout the weekend was the relationship between breath, support and resonance. Establishing a deep-set breath with bucket-cup-teaspoon exercises at the start of each session set us up to develop the clarity of tone that not only adds brightness to the sound but allows the breath to last longer, as it comes from more efficient contact of the vocal folds. Once you get the voice set up this way, it tends to stay there, only needing occasional reminders to empty the bucket completely before starting to sing to reset any time the tone loses focus.

In the early stages of this process each day, we were working with tags. Notwithstanding my comments earlier this year about how the learning experience you get from tags in chorus rehearsal being fundamentally different from that in an afterglow, they turned out to be very useful vehicles for workshopping technique. The ones we were working with were two breaths long, so we got to practice both initial breaths and between-phrase breaths in a musically-complete context that nonetheless gave frequent opportunities for interventions to refine technique.

Last time I worked with the chorus, I remarked on the use of activities that facilitated mutual bonds with the group. In the interim I have read Daniel Coyle’s book The Culture Code, which talks a lot about the way healthy groups generate a culture of safety. (It was one of those books that I read because multiple people whose opinion I value talked about it. I’ve not yet got round to blogging about it, but I might yet.)

Another conversation over dinner on Saturday was about how a being a small chorus facilitates inter-group bonds. It is by definition easier to know everybody else when there aren’t so very many of you. But I had add in the thought that it’s not just the size of the group that does it, it is also what they do.

For example, their warm-up on Saturday included activities that involved walking round the room freely, giving the opportunity to make eye contact and greet each other. This developed in forming groups of two or three who would walk together for a while, then reform with other people in fluid and spontaneous nonverbal interactions. Likewise, the practice of sharing a pot-luck buffet – on the face of it an entirely non-musical activity – generates a very primal sense of belonging. The sharing of nutritional resources was fundamental to how we evolved as a social species, and feeding each other remains a way to signal: ‘I value you, I care for you, we have a future together’.

One of the other themes we explored was Carol Dweck’s work on mindset, in conjunction with the process of skill-development. These also fed directly into the meeting of safety needs, as they allow you to embrace the making of mistakes and the need for repetition as part of the process. Once you realise that the near-misses are vital for growing myelin, you stop feeling anxious when things go wrong. You still want to do them again to make them better, but the mistakes no longer feel like a threat to the musical endeavour.

In a group of highly motivated people who are all taking responsibility for practising new skills, often the most useful thing you can do when something goes okay but not brilliantly is to do it again twice more. Stopping to talk just delays the moment when the people can sort out the stuff they noticed that they can do better.

You can hear quite clearly when a passage is still in flux, as different things go well or badly each time. When it settles down into a state of consistency, a lot of the things you might have talked about have fixed themselves (or, rather, been fixed by intelligent application of technique by the singers), and you can usefully focus your attention on the things that could still benefit from some further work.

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