Directors Connecting

dirday2020Saturday 13 June was supposed to have been the day when directors of LABBS choruses convened from around the country in Coventry for our annual training event. Instead, we met online. On the bright side, it meant that costs for both individuals and organisation were negligible, and notwithstanding all the drawbacks of the medium, it was wonderful to get everyone together. It is wonderfully supportive community.

Inevitably, the shape of the event had to change. Instead of a whole day, we shortened it to an afternoon in recognition of the obstacles to focus and engagement on Zoom. And the practical training model I was so looking forward to sharing, involving small groups working on the intimate connection between gesture and sound, will necessarily have to wait until we can get into a room together once again to make that connection.

Persistence versus Productivity: the Artist’s Dilemma

Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando follows its eponymous hero(ine) through several centuries of English history, from late medieval times to the ‘now’ in which Woolf was writing. When I first read it in my mid-teens, the thing that stayed with me, even more than the colourful panoply of history, was the relationship Orlando had with his/her art.

S/he aspired to be a poet, and was working on an epic work called ‘The Oak Tree’. (Goes off to check I’ve remembered that correctly…yes I did.) For much of the book, it is never quite satisfactory, and s/he keeps reworking it. Which, given the apparent immortality of the author, means that every time literary tastes change, the poem has to be re-written in the forms and styles of the day.

My 16-year-old self took this as a cautionary tale. If you wait until you have got something absolutely ‘right’, you may never get there, as what you consider to be ‘right’ might have changed in the interim. Obviously, for normal mortals like us, the problem isn’t the transition from Renaissance to Restoration styles, but that sense of shifting goal posts is still an issue.

Thoughts on Performance and Skill-Development

Over the autumn and winter I found myself teaching two courses designed to bring relative novices up to a decent foundational level of skill. One was the Initial conducting course for the Association of British Choral Directors that took place on four Saturdays in Newcastle between October and February. The other was the Learn to Sing in Harmony course hosted by the Telfordaires for 90 minutes each week on our first six rehearsals of the new year.

I found myself having the same conversation with more than one person on each of these courses, where they would remark that they had practised at home and were confident they could do a particular musical task, but when came to the next session it suddenly became much harder. In the former case, it was about how the beat patterns for 2, 3 and 4 seem simple until you add other things them like cueing, or indeed listening to the singers you are leading at the same time. In the latter, it was about how you can sing your part perfectly well by yourself, but it becomes a lot harder when you add the other three parts into the mix.

Reflections on FICA19

Overall winners: Cantairí Óga Átha CliathOverall winners: Cantairí Óga Átha Cliath

I know I said I wasn’t going to be blogging until I’d written and presented both the papers I’m committed to in November, but I have some processing to do after last week’s extravaganza in Aveiro, Portgual. The event combined the annual Festival Internacional de Coros, hosted by Voz Nua choir, with the inaugural choral stream at the Hands On Symposium, running in parallel with piano and guitar streams. I was presenting a keynote at the symposium as well as forming one third of the jury for the festival competitions.

It’s the first time I’ve been directly adjudicating (as opposed to overseeing examination processes) for a few years, and it turns out that my handwriting hasn’t improved any in the interim. I endeavoured to be generous in my comments; I just hope I was also legible. I am sure the competitors will get in touch about anything that’s too cryptic!

Practice Gadgets as Feedback Tools

The term ‘practice gadget’ is one coined by Daniel Coyle to refer to tactics people use to selectively increase the challenge of what they are working on. The archetypal example would be the way that the popular game of futsal trained up a generation of Brazilian football players, documented in his first book. Working on a smaller scale than soccer, and using a ball with significantly less bounce, futsal makes players work harder at ball-handling and team interaction, leading to a level of virtuosity that the larger, outdoor version of the game rarely fosters.

There is another dimension to the practice gadgets though, not just the amplification of challenge: they provide a feedback-rich experience. The physical interface with the activity talks back to you with a constant stream of information about how you’re getting on.

Myelinating with Mo

The recent LABBS Harmony College brought lots of interesting resonances with the blog post I had scheduled to come out the day after I got home from it. This is not entirely a coincidence of course – at the time I was writing about practice processes and shunting between local and global, I was also refining my notes for a session on rehearsal techniques that focused on Daniel Coyle’s Talent Code, and its accounts of how we acquire skills.

But our guest educator Mo Field also gave us a lot to enrich that understanding. Her coaching under glass session with Soundhouse and Avalon quartets on Saturday evening was a masterclass in myelination. She took very little time before she started to delve deep, paring down to two singers each on a single note and spending a long time there before building up to four singers and three or notes at a go. Then when she pulled the camera back to take in wider stretches of music, the singers were able to continue accessing the new paths they had gone down as they had spent long enough there to get them at least partly established.

Thinking Faces

I recently reread Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code to refresh myself before teaching a class that drew on it at LABBS Harmony College. The great thing about rereading things is that you can suddenly spot all kinds of cross-references with things you have read since – connections which, by definition, weren’t available to you the first time you read it.

One of the points that leapt out at me is Coyle’s description of people engaged in deep practice – the behaviours that lead to myelination and thus the development of skill. They display a characteristic facial expression, a kind of intent squint that makes them all look rather like Clint Eastwood. So of course I went to refresh my memory of his face and laughed out loud at the results of a google image search – my screen reminded me of a class or a choir when I’ve just asked them to do something they’ve not done before.

The Robot/Human Dialectic

There’s an exercise I like to do with ensembles in which they toggle between singing as if they were a robot and as if they were a human being. It’s interesting because you think before you start that it’s primarily about expressiveness – turning both vocal and facial empathy for the music on and off. Which it is, but it also turns out to be about technical control. The robot mode typically displays not only a more angular rather than flowing sense of shape, but also much cleaner synchronisation of rhythm and word sounds. You lose something by turning off your humanity, but you gain something too.

I recently had a conversation with an individual singer about managing his relationship with these two states. He generally gives his primary focus to accuracy (an attitude that you have to like), but feels this can result in a robotic delivery: ‘I don’t think I know how to sing a melody like a Lead, while still doing all the stuff on placement, timing etc,’ he said.

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