A Weekend with the Barberlights

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Unless something unexpected happens very soon, last weekend was my last coaching trip to Germany for 2018. This time I was with the Barberlights in Remseck, near Stuttgart, and we had a full schedule together, starting Friday evening and continuing all day Saturday and most of Sunday too. To say this allowed us to get a lot done together would be an understatement.

It wasn’t just the sheer number of hours we spent together, I’d add, it was the chance to sleep on our experiences together and revisit the next day. In this sense, the session on Friday, though only an hour and a half long, really punched above its weight. Not only did we start Saturday having done some groundwork together, we’d also given our brains the chance to process, sort and embed the work.

Our trajectory of attention travelled from Friday through to Saturday evening from vocal craft, through music through to a focus on performance and communication. This left Sunday to revisit whichever elements people most wanted to spend more time on, and to tidy up any unfinished business.

When planning the weekend, my concept of that shape was based on the logic of which skills would build on which. Activating the breath and body to aid a clean contact between the vocal folds comes first because its rewards will be felt in everything you go on to do with the voices.

Work on vowel shape and placement can then bring the sound further into focus, and thereby helps harmonic colour come to life. Likewise, work on keeping the jaw relaxed and thus the vowels more consistent aids musical flow through a wordy phrase. Once you’ve started thinking about what the harmonies sound like, of course, the genie is out of the bottle and it’s only a matter of time before you’re talking about how they make people feel.

By the time we got to Saturday evening, I was noticing an additional logic to this trajectory. When people are fresh – the first short session together, in the morning after a good night’s sleep – is the time when they are best able to do the heavy cognitive lifting of technical work. Over-riding habit and thinking consciously about how you are using your voice takes concentration. It is, in Daniel Kahneman’s terms, System 2 work, slow and demanding of brainspace.

By the end of the afternoon, it is unrealistic to expect much more System 2 work, especially if you’ve had a really intensive and effective morning. But your System 1 thinking is still in good shape, so activities that draw on your intuition can still be very effective. Indeed, if you want people to stop over-thinking things and trust their instincts, then using up all their capacity for System 2 analysis earlier in the day allows their imaginations to range freely without undue self-consciousness.

At this point in the day, a couple of people marvelled over how we could make such profound differences with such small interventions. They thought they were complimenting my coaching (which is nice – thank you!), but the phenomenon they were observing was the inbuilt capacity of their own brains to make rich intuitive leaps when they accessed their holistic and associative mode of thought.

Whilst an extended visit like this offers opportunities to revisit and rework things, it also presents the challenge of how to keep the attention fresh. The gradual change in focus over the weekend was one way to help with this, as was moving through different repertoire. But you also need a change of activity if people are not to glaze over.

We thus placed our work on chorus stacking in the middle of our longest day. The after-lunch slot often sees a slump in attention, so we used it to organise all the singers into a continuum of vocal timbre from trumpets to flutes. This made less intensive demands on the concentration, while giving every chorus member a little jolt of adrenaline when it was their turn to sing to the group. I like to run this process as a very participative exercise, so that everyone feels they know each other’s voices better by the end of it, and can feel confident that they can continue to use the technique after I have gone away.

The other great amenity for refreshing attention available was a collection of three smaller ensembles from within the chorus, a quartet and two octets. The weekend gave a good opportunity for all of these to perform to the chorus the music they will be taking to their Advent concert in a couple of weeks, and in the process it gave the other singers a chance to listen and think about things we had been learning together.

So, with the quartet, we demonstrated the process of duetting that we were later to use with the chorus as a whole. Then with the first double quartet we explored the effect that stacking the singers with the trumpet-voices towards the middle and the flutes towards the edges has on the overall sound – to quite dramatic effect. In the light of this experience, the second octet prepared to compare the two conditions for us again, and we went on to explore thoughts about adrenaline and performance that had come in overnight in response to the invitation for requests of what to address on Sunday.

Activities where members of a choir sing to one another have all kinds of educational benefits, both for those who sing and those who listen. But the aspect of the experience that always stays with me the most is the visceral reminder of how lovely it is to be sung to.

As performers, we so often beat ourselves up about the errors we make in performance: our imperfect control, the things we prepared that didn’t come with us to the stage. But when we are listeners, we aren’t judgemental like that, we’re delighted with the gift of song. It is its own reward without any need for educational benefit, though the most important thing we could learn may be to be as kind and supportive to ourselves as singers as we are to those who sing to us.

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