LABBS Convention 2015

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bournemouthBournemouth at the end of October/start of November was astonishingly warm and balmy - you can see why it is a traditional British holiday town. Of course I wasted nearly all the great weather huddled inside the Bournemouth International Centre listening to people sing, but that’s how my sense of priorities works. Still, I was grateful not to find myself as windblown as you get sometimes at the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers conventions.

This was the second year I was attending without judging duties, and I can see that I’ll be saying, ‘No I’m not a judge any more,’ to people asking me about my weekend for years to come. (I mention this here in an attempt to hasten the process of people taking that on board.) I did have a new ‘official’ duty this year, though; in my role as LABBS Chorus Director Development Specialist I ran a Fringe session on ‘What Do You Want From Your Chorus Director, and What Do They Want From You?’ on the Friday afternoon.

The thinking behind this session was that I spend a lot of time consulting with directors about what they want help with to inform the association’s education provision, but that we also need to know what those directors’ primary clients, the singers, would like them to get better at. So this session was focused on identifying what changes in directors’ skills and/or behaviours would most improve the chorus member’s experience on a week-to-week basis.

We had a nice sized group for this - enough to get a good discussion going, but small enough that everybody could hear each other and feel part of the conversation. And I sent away several chorus directors who tried to come along and join in, as I wanted the singers to feel they could speak freely. For the same reason, we didn’t let anyone record the session, though we did have someone taking notes (thanks, Jenny!).

You see, sometimes the first way a thought comes out isn’t necessarily phrased in the most tactful way, so we needed to create a space in which people didn’t have to worry about how they worded things while they worked out what they wanted to say. The nice thing about note-taking as a way of keeping records is that you have a chance to review things before they are distributed.

It was interesting that we also didn’t talk about people’s chorus affiliations during the process either. Yes, we were discussing individuals, but the point wasn’t to make personal remarks, it was to articulate what kinds of changes would produce positive results. And we ended up with some very productive exchanges of ideas for processes and structures that operate for the chorus as a whole, not just the director.

For the rest of the weekend, my role switched to responding to things rather than instigating them. I had five arrangements being performed in the chorus contest (four for the first time), and had also worked with several other groups during their preparation for the weekend. So I alternated between sitting in the auditorium being entertained, and coming back out to see these performers to celebrate their achievements.

One thing I thought a lot about on the way home was how many of these performers asked not, ‘How did we do?’ or ‘Did you enjoy it?’ but, ‘Did we do you justice?’ The first two questions are easy to answer, but the third always flummoxes me, because, well, it shouldn’t be about me. Obviously I like it when people sing my arrangements well, or successfully execute the skills I’ve helped them develop, but that’s not because it will hurt me if they don’t, it’s because the point of the whole exercise is to share the delight of making good music. If anything, if it doesn’t go well, it’s not that they’ve failed me, but that I’ve failed them!

And at that moment when people have just performed, the reason I go to see them is to celebrate and to validate, not to give feedback. If people come off stage unhappy with what they’ve done (not an issue this weekend, I’m happy to say, but it can happen), then I’ll be there for them to commiserate, and help them put themselves back together emotionally. But the usual run of things is that people come off stage in a blaze of adrenaline, and when you’ve played a part in the journey that took them there, it’s just lovely to connect with them at the point when they complete the journey. So, even if I did think they made a dog’s breakfast of it all, there is absolutely no way I would want to spoil their hard-earned post-performance high by saying so.

The other thing I reflected on was about artistic ownership. Of course I have a sense of how I think an arrangement I have created should go. But the performances that thrill an audience are the ones where it sounds like the performers have thought everything up. So, whilst I am very happy to work with groups I arrange for on giving them insight into my vision of it, ultimately they are the ones doing the performing and therefore the ones entitled to make the performance decisions.

And if that means I sometimes disagree with them, that’s part of the process. Many other times, they’ll do something that I had never thought of but that utterly delights me. You can’t have the one without the other. (Heh, and I just said it wasn’t about me. The performance isn’t, but in this blog I get to be as opinionated as I like...)

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