Jim Henry and the Cottontown Chorus

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jimhWell, it's only 3 years since I last blogged about watching Jim Henry work with a top-notch British chorus, and 4 years since I wrote about a Cottontown coaching session at a BABS convention. But I don't get bored of this stuff: it is always fabulous to watch people who are good at what they do being helped to get better by people who are *really* good at what they do.

As I noted last time I watched Jim Henry coaching, the how is more striking than the what. The techniques are simple, and Jim has no compunction about staying with a single technique and/or coaching focus for an extended period of time. Indeed, when I asked a friend what I'd missed in the first part of the session (I was late as I needed to hear the Telfordaires premiere an arrangement they had commissioned from me for the 40th anniversary convention), she said, 'He told them to sing in tune'. Which is actually also a fair summary of the hour I saw. Of course, the point is, anyone can tell you to sing in tune - it's the coaches who can make that actually happen you want to pay attention to.

The three elements I wrote about last time were still clearly in evidence, but were not the things that this time leapt out to me as the defining features of Jim's coaching. This of course says more about what's different in what I'm learning than what's different in what Jim is doing. So, yes, we still have intensity, aspirational language and kinaesthesia knocking about, but the bits that are underlined in my notebook this time are:

  1. Core message. All the specific details, and all the techniques Jim used to address them were approached through the theme of synergy. Some of this (actually, a lot of this) was focused on the nitty-gritty of execution - tuning and synchronisation - but this was all placed in the context of an over-riding principle that was moral as well as technical. This is a classic cause in the charismatic sense, in that it is an abstract good that people can commit their hearts to.
  2. Constant monitoring and enforcement. Jim never let the singers slide back down the greasy pole. Techniques such as having 'everybody sing, but only the leads out loud' kept the harmony parts on task audiating like billy-o while he delved into the minutiae of the leads' line. When directors worry about hearing everything that's going on in the texture, they need to remember that even the best ears in the business like to pare things back for detailed attention
  3. Affirmation. This relates to the aspirational approach I noted in 2011, but it wasn't just about Jim's use of language. He also had chorus members articulating what they felt they had achieved, and so taking ownership of the cause he was propounding and his methods for pursuing it. It was quite striking that the invitation for comment was phrased very specifically as an instruction to say what the singers felt they had done better as a result of the coaching, i.e. it was very carefully framed so that the only legitimate response was to affirm the coaching process just undertaken. (There was more open-ended opportunity to flush out and deal with doubts or questions at another point, but it felt much more like tidying up at the end of the session than an emotionally-charged and central moment.)

On the Monday morning show at the convention I did a stand-up comedy spot about singers and singing originally developed for the Bright Club. The middle section of it developed the theme of choirs and cults I have explored as part of my charisma project. If anyone thought I was joking though, they need to watch Jim in action. It's funny because it's true.

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