Alliteratively Aural Adventures

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Yes, I know it’s getting a bit self-referential to describe the title of a blog post in that blog post, but my usual approach of using either the ensemble’s name or its location as a starting point was running into difficulties. The adventures were down in Coulsdon, near Croydon, with Surrey Harmony - none of which words alliterate with what we were doing, which was a workshop on Aural Skills for Choral Groups (which does at least have an internal rhyme to its name).

One of the things I have reflected on periodically as a review my workshops and coaching sessions is the different kind of things you can deal with effectively at different stages of process of preparation for performance. When the music isn’t yet very familiar, you haven’t got the familiarity to dig into detail, but conversely, you have the freedom to explore big-picture questions of fundamental musical feel. When you’re getting near to the performance, you don’t want to get people questioning what they’re doing, but instead you want to hone and polish and focus.

The Wednesday after a chorus has done the fourth and last in a series of four shows, you can simply play. Workshops differ from coaching sessions in varying extents depending on context, but programming one for the week after a big performance season really brings the distinction into relief. The chorus was freed from the imperatives to Get Things Right in time for the performance, whilst we had a fund of repertoire that everyone knew well enough that we could play games with to focus on skills without getting distracted by having to ‘fix’ things.

The workshop consisted of a series of exercises and games, some as stand-alone exercises that you could do in a warm-up, and some working with items of repertoire. The first hour was themed around developing the singers’ sense of tonal centre, while the second was dedicated to enhancing their perceptual awareness of the whole sound. It was designed this way round to programme the part which was more cognitively taxing first, while the brains were fresher, and to put the part which involved more openness and personal vulnerability later, when we’d got to know each other and built up some trust.

One feature I rather enjoyed, as a way to draw attention to the focus on the skills, rather than the individual songs, was to ask random chorus members to name a song they’d performed in the show the previous weekend, and then play the game I’d planned with that particular song.

This helps everyone experience the transferability of skills (the game or exercise would be relevant to any song chosen from their repertoire), as well as adding to the sense of here-and-nowness, the sense of occasion. Having aspects of the evening that nobody could have predicted in advance keeps everyone - including the workshop leader and the chorus director - on their toes and having to respond in the moment.

And this in turn makes the whole enterprise feel so much more collaborative. For all the detailed preparation and planning I brought to the workshop, that plan is not, itself, a workshop. It needs the specific set of people on a particular occasion to bring the learning alive. Without the intelligence and musicianship and the active complicity of the singers, nobody grows; with them, everybody does.

(Now I think about it, that’s the kind of thing composers say about writing music. What an apt metaphor.)

And on a similar theme, I’d just like to mention a rather wonderful thing I witnessed in the warm-up just before the workshop, which was led by the tenor section leader, Louise Bowman. Clearly, tongue-twisters are an established element in her array of techniques, but she had written one for the occasion about the previous weekend’s show - and appropriately alliterative it was too. So, not only did she usefully stretch the singers' mental and articulatory capacities, she also made them feel really special.

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