April 2012

Making Your Nerves Work For You

For those people who were at the LABBS Education Day at Little Chalfont on Saturday, here as promised are the slides that accompanied my break-out session.

For those of you who weren't there, this is an overview of the areas we covered. It doesn't have all the explanatory stuff that said what the slides mean, but I think it has enough detail that it can be of some use.

I'll be posting some more articles on some of the themes in here over the coming weeks, so if you're patient, anything that looks too cryptic here may yet be explained.

Incidentally, as anyone who's seen me present before will know, I prefer to have people doing things and interacting rather than using slides, and when I do use slides I'd rather use pictures than bullet points. (Indeed, the whole bullets point thing is a bit of a bête noir for me.) But as I prepared for this session, I was surprised to discover that actually a lot of the content fitted into bulletted lists simply and clearly, so it would have seemed unduly contrary not to have used them!

Participation, Performance and Musical Standards

Recently I was having a facebook chat with a friend who wanted to talk over a dilemma, and it occurred to me that it was worth sharing, as it has at its heart what is probably the biggest question community arts face. The dilemma is this: he is the director of a village band which has an active committee that succeeds in getting them lots of paid gigs. However, it is an open-access band, and many of the players are not very skilled. He was therefore worried whether it is right to accept money for these gigs when the artistic product is often shaky at best.

Isn’t this an interesting question?

How Many Singers Make a Choir?

There was an interesting discussion in the LinkedIn Choral Enthusiasts group last week about how many singers it takes to make a choir. It was started by ChoralNet stalwart, Philip Tolley, who articulated the question thus:

What is the minimum number of singers that constitute a choir - is it 2 voices per part (depending on the number of parts) or is it 9 singers as anything under already has a name (Octet, trio, etc)?

I found the discussion interesting because, on the face of it, you'd think it was a simple question. Some ensembles are clearly chamber ensembles, and some are clearly larger bodies of singers, and it's to the latter that we'd usually apply the term 'choir'. But it's harder than you'd think to define a numerical value to where one becomes the other.

Charisma and Confidence

The self-help literature on charisma often identifies a confident demeanour as a key attribute of charismatic people. And it therefore encourages its readers to adopt bodily and interactional habits that are often seen to signal confidence: an upright stance, a firm handshake, meaningful eye contact.

As is so often the case with this literature, this seems simultaneously absolutely right and absolutely wrong. The identification of traits seems accurate and carefully observed, but attempting to recreate them as a means to develop charisma feels like an essentially self-defeating exercise.

Musical Sense and the Stroop Effect

One of the things I love about coaching is the way that other musicians help you see things you already thought you knew in a new light. A lovely example of this happened when I was up in Edinburgh with MacFour at the end of March. We were talking about the relationship between the manager and the communicator, and how I’d originally started using these terms when thinking about the nature of the task the arranger sets up for the performer. We somehow also managed to divert into one of my favourite rants about the nature of the baritone line.

It was at this point that Elaine Hamilton, the quartet’s baritone, came out with the remark:

Yes, and if the baritone line is illogical, you find that you start to sing a bit behind everyone else as it takes you longer to process it.

The Ignition of Talent 2: Practical Ramifications

So, having considered some of the central elements of people’s stories of how they came to be dedicated to their thing to the point of monomania, it’s time to think about what implications these elements have for us in our roles as teachers and/or choir leaders. There’s no thrill like it for an educator to spark someone into brilliance (both for us and for them), so what can we do maximise our chances?

First, we need to recognise that a lot of it is out of our hands. We can’t force it to happen, since it is essentially about the learner’s decision identify with the activity. Moreover, since there are a limited number of things at which you can be obsessively brilliant at once, it’s clear that not everyone is going to pick my thing to obsess about. That’s fine. That clarifies our job as being (a) to enable cheerful competence for those who are ignited by something else and (b) to be ready to meet the needs of those who fall in love with our thing.

The Ignition of Talent: How do we become obsessive about something?

I have been thinking quite a lot recently about what Dan Coyle refers to as ‘ignition’ – the spark that motivates that obsessive, deep engagement with a subject or activity that leads to the development of expertise. Ten thousand hours is a huge amount of time to dedicate to something, and if you only give your attention to it during the formal or dutiful parts of learning you’re not going to clock up enough experience to get beyond mere competence. Going to your lessons and doing your practice isn’t enough: you also need to squander great big chunks of your life on it.

Effecting Change: from Conscious to Unconscious Competence


I recently had a really interesting email from a friend about the chorus she directs. She has been working with them for some weeks on making a significant shift in their vocal production over the course of two months, from a sound she describes as ‘wide’ to one that is ‘forward and tall’.*

They have got to the point where the singers grasp what is being asked for, and agree with the value of making the change, but habitually revert to their previous placement any time they’re not specifically working on the new sound. This is proving somewhat frustrating.

My friend’s email talked about the process of change in Kotter’s terms – of unfreezing, transforming and re-freezing. She feels they have managed the unfreezing well, and are making good headway with the ‘communicating visions’ and ‘short-term wins’ bit of transforming, but are finding the stage of re-freezing is not getting any nearer. She specifically mentions one aspect of the process that I think she is absolutely right to focus on next:

A Hallmark of Trust

HallmarkI spent a most interesting and productive evening on Tuesday evening with Hallmark of Harmony in Sheffield. They are in the process of developing a five-year plan for the chorus: they have already identified their four primary goals, and have a working-group assigned to each generating ideas about how they will achieve them. They asked me to come along in advisory role to work with them in profiling development needs for both chorus and musical leadership team.

The plan was, therefore, to meet with their director, Andy Allen, and some of the Music Team before the rehearsal, then to go and spend the first part of the rehearsal observing. They had organised things carefully so that I had opportunities to see all of the team in action. Then, in the second half of the evening, I took on a more orthodox coaching role, working with both the chorus and directors.

MacThree plus MacThree

Mac3 mark 1Mac3 mark 1Mac3 mark 2Mac3 mark 2

The weekend took me back up to Edinburgh to work with my friends MacFour Quartet again. I last saw them in November, when our focus was on digging deep into their songs to explore the depths of their expressive detail. With 6 weeks to go before the annual Sweet Adelines regional contest, our task this time was to get the Manager off duty and the Communicator to the fore.

We had booked the session a couple of months ago, and in the meantime miscellaneous circumstances (filed under the category of Real Life) had arisen that meant that only three of the quartet were available on each of the Friday evening and Saturday sessions. The quartet’s stickability and experience showed through in the fact that they did not consider this a reason not to go ahead. It’s as much in these matters of organisation and attitude that a quartet’s longer-term success can be gauged as in their vocal and musical prowess.

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