Coaching

Inside the Arranging Process with Cheshire Chord Company

CCCmar21On Thursday evening I joined the Cheshire Chord Company to offer a presentation on the arranging process, walking through some of the practical and artistic decisions that inform how a chart takes shape. As ever with these kinds of events, I came away far more interested in the questions than they were asking than what I had presented – after all, I knew what I was going to say in advance as I’d prepared it, but the questions take the conversation into all kinds of interesting places that I’d not necessarily anticipated.

One question that I’m often asked and find almost impossible to answer is what is my favourite chart. I’m generally poor at picking favourites of anything, but I think the reason it is particularly hard with arrangements is that every time I am arranging something for someone, for them it is their special thing. So, for the duration of the time I’m working on it, it is my special thing too. If I want the groups I arrange for to be delighted with their music, I can’t approach it as ‘just another chart’.

Rethinking Retreats with Granite City Chorus

Instead of a screen-shot: this is us last yearInstead of a screen-shot: this is us last year

When I spent a weekend in late February last year with Granite City Chorus for their annual retreat, it was in a hotel up in the mountains an hour from Aberdeen from Saturday morning to mid-afternoon on Sunday. As it became clear towards the end of 2020 that we weren’t going to be back to in-person singing in time for this year’s event, we had to reimagine it.

The first thing we did was to shorten it. The pleasures of deep immersion in musical learning away from home are not directly replicable online. Quite apart from the fact that everyone would still actually be at home, the cognitive demands of the medium make remote rehearsing more tiring. Plus of course many participants will be spending their working week with their eyes on screens, and need some quality time away from their devices at weekends.

Melting People’s Brains at Cheshire Chord Company

I didn't get a screen-shot but CCC sent me this one:: numbers games in action!I didn't get a screen-shot but CCC sent me this one:: numbers games in action!On Thursday evening I popped in for a while on Cheshire Chord Company for a session billed as ‘online musicianship games’. As I told them at the start, when people tell you to explain what you do in 10 words, I say, ‘People sing to me and I mess with their heads’. I have a large repertoire of silly things to do that get people feeling like their brains are gently sizzling in butter; the word for this sensation is ‘learning’.

The challenge in planning a session like this is not finding material – I have been borrowing, adapting and inventing this stuff for years – but in crafting it into a longer session. In a regular rehearsal or coaching session I’d use these as ice-breakers, or attention-refreshers: short, intense bursts of brain-stretching silliness as a change from regular skills-based or repertoire-based work.

Zooming in with The Rhubarbs

Screenshot or it didn't happen...Screenshot or it didn't happen...My last international coaching trip early in 2020 was over to Bonn to work with The Rhubarbs and their quartet, Note-4-Note. Coronavirus was in the news by then, and we compared notes about how it was regarded in the Germany versus the UK, but I don’t think we could yet imagine the impact it was going to have on us all. Whilst it is always heart-warming to see the faces of people you’re fond of over Zoom, these memories gave a little extra emotional resonance to my visit to the chorus on Tuesday evening.

Until quite recently, they had been able to meet to rehearse, and so are in the early days of their Zoom experience. So far they had largely used the platform to stay in touch rather than for musical activity, but since they’d invited me I suggested we could do some singing games while we were at it.

Exploring Implicit Knowledge with the Red Rosettes

Screenshot or it didn't happen...Screenshot or it didn't happen...

I had a productive session on Tuesday evening with the music team of the Red Rosettes, exploring musical features of the ballad I arranged for them last year. I would have met with the whole chorus, but their rehearsal clashes with my own, and while under normal circumstances I don’t mind occasionally abandoning my team to get on with things while I visit another chorus, under current conditions I’d rather not. Not that my team aren’t awesome, you understand, I just want to be there for them.

Anyway, the Red Rosettes were very understanding, and we recorded the session to share with the rest of their singers. There is an advantage in a smaller group that you have a more genuinely interactive session, so there were upsides too.

They had sent me a recording of the chorus singing the ballad just before lockdown, and whilst it was clearly still work-in-progress, you could hear that they are on the case: they have a clear intuitive feel for what the music is doing and what it asks of the singers. Our session largely involved bring this intuition to the surface, articulating things they have felt implicitly to help them understand their instincts.

Blue Sky thinking with Mayflower A Cappella

MayflowersJun20a

My last couple of coaching visits have been to help out on new, recently commissioned arrangements. Monday evening was a development on this theme, with an invitation to visit the Mayflower A Cappella Chorus in Plymouth to talk about my arrangement of Mr Blue Sky, which they are currently learning.

This was an interesting challenge as instead of dealing with a chart that was relatively fresh in memory, it involved revisiting music I had written 9 full years ago. What could I remember from my past self’s experience of working on this music? What did I see in it looking at it with fresh eyes?

Warming-up the Conductor-Choir Bond

It feels strange writing about the intimate real-time contact between conductor gesture and choral sounds at a time when I have been unable to experience it for three months and will likely have to wait many more before I can experience it again. But there are some interesting notes sitting in my thinking book from earlier in the year and now is as good a time as any to reflect on them.

Sometimes when I’m visiting a chorus to coach, the director might ask me to take the warm-up. I’ll always oblige because I too enjoy watching other people lead warm-ups, seeing what they do and how they do them. Part of what they’re paying for when getting an outsider in is approaches they may not have thought of (the other part of course being validation of good things they do already).

Facsinating Melody

fr18jun20

They say that if you lose one of your senses, your others increase in acuity to compensate: you become better at hearing if you lose your sight, for instance. It has seemed to me that as remote rehearsing strips out our capacity to operate harmonically, our awareness and appreciation of melody has blossomed to fill the aesthetic gap.

To be fair, I was always a sucker for a good tune, and had I been able to go and work with Fascinating Rhythm in person on Thursday, we probably would have spent a lot of our time thinking about melody anyway, given the character of the music we were dealing with . But I was particularly glad that the song they had asked me to arrange for them last autumn* that we explored together is so profoundly melodic, as it gives them the opportunity to reach much of what the heart of the music is about, even while they are stuck in their Zoom rooms.

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