September 2012

The White Rosettes in Micro and Macro


Wednesday took me up to Leeds to work with the White Rosettes on a collection of three stupendously big David Wright arrangements, any one of which would be a major undertaking for a normal chorus. But the White Rosettes aren’t particularly interested in normality, and it gave us the opportunity to explore the specific challenges that monster charts present.

The vocal challenges are those of stamina and control, of course. And the White Rosettes didn’t need my help with these. They operate at a high level of vocal fitness, engendered not just by the challenges they set themselves in their repertoire but also by the pace and intensity of their rehearsal habits.

But music such as this sets mental challenges too, and they can’t be solved purely by doing what you’d do for regular pieces, only more so.

Charisma's Concentric Structure

expansionOne of the primary themes of the sociological study of charismatic power is that you need to understand it as a relationship. It's not just about the colourful leader, it's about the interaction between that authority figure and the group that follows them. Indeed, the way you can identify charisma is not by looking at the attributes of the individual in isolation, but by looking at the effect they have on the collective. Charisma is about the encounter - it's not something you can do alone.

However, the group is not itself a simple entity. At the moment of a particular encounter, there may be clear sense of group coherence, generated by the experience of communion by all who are present. (I'm thinking, for example, of a choral rehearsal here.) But for a charismatic leader to have influence that lasts beyond the duration of a single encounter, and that affects more people than they are with in the room at any one time, the notion of 'collective' separates out into a number of concentric layers.

Bristol Week, Part 3


Thursday evening saw final episode of my trio of visits to Bristol, this time to work Avon Harmony and their new director Alex de Bruin. It must be at least six years since I last coached the chorus, but I was still greeted like a long-lost friend. And the club chair had baked a cake; I like her leadership style.

We covered a varied range of both vocal and musical areas during the evening, making it one of those sessions that feels hard to summarise. One theme that emerged in more than one context, though, was the idea that it's okay to be not-yet-skilled at something - in fact, better to dive on in an achieve it only intermittently than use a work-around that produces a competent half-way version.

Coventry Moment


As an interlude in my Bristol week, I spent Sunday over near Coventry with the Belles of Three Spires and their director Lucy Edmonds. This was the second of two full-day rehearsals for them, so they were very well into the groove. You could see a certain amount of tiredness, too, though this was mostly apparent at the start and end of the day; once we all got going the momentum of the process took over. And if they had to dig a bit deeper for mental stamina as we went on, that will return rewards in the coming weeks as they consolidate the weekend’s work.

As with my last visit, I was in a dual role of both working with the chorus and with the director. But the balance this time was much more director-focused. As the day went on we developed a working method whereby I was coaching the chorus primarily via Lucy’s posture and gesture. Our goal was to see how much positive change in their performance we could achieve via adjusting the directing technique rather than giving instructions to the singers.

Bristol Week, Part 2

FRsep12My second coaching visit to the Bristol area came on Saturday, when I spent the day with Fascinating Rhythm, based just north of the city. In my last visit, we had been exploring David Wright’s arrangement of ‘South Rampart Street Parade’; this was on the agenda again, as was Rob Campbell’s arrangement of ‘Once Upon a Time’.

Our first major theme for the day was integration, in both musical and performative senses.

Bristol Week


Thursday evening was the first of three coaching trips to Bristol in the space of a week. Entirely a coincidence as it happens, but I am going to feel properly up to date on all the news from that part of the world by the end of it. This first trip was to coach Bristol Fashion, with whom regular readers will know I have been working a couple of times a year for three years now.

I commented last time I worked with them how gratifying it is to have a sense of building on skills that have been embedded in the months between visits, and I couldn't help but notice them using exercises in their warm-up that we had introduced back in May. I'm sure they do this when I'm not there to see it too!

Arousal and Ignition

Do you ever have one of those penny-drop moments when you suddenly realise that something you have learned recently might actually explain something else that you know from experience to be true but had never previously really understood?

I had one of these recently about the way that it takes performing a piece to cement it. It is a robust generalisation based in observed experience that however much you might practise a piece of music, it is the act of performance that moves it up to the next level. I have tended to think of the cycle of rehearsal and performance in terms of the metaphor of tempering steel: repeated heating and quenching is what makes it strong.

Random thoughts on National Anthems

One of the incidental pleasures of the Olympics and Paralympics has been the opportunity to hear lots of different national anthems. I've always been a little uncertain about my relationship with the British effort,* coming from a family where opinions on both religion and royalty were rather divided, but I have to say it comes into its own when you need to sing it in a packed stadium where you can actually feel the heat of the flame from where you stand.

The thing I particularly like about it is that, for a tune that's intended to be sung by anyone and everyone, it is both well-formed and singable. The whole covers a range of less than an octave, and it mostly moves by step. The one big leap comes between phrases halfway through, to a note a step higher than the highest note in the tune so far. This means you get the drama of a big leap, but are pretty guaranteed that everyone is likely to actually get to the right note. (Unlike the octave leap in the middle of 'Happy Birthday', which is routinely fluffed because people (a) start too high and (b) aren't vocally prepared for the high note.) It's the kind of tune that L.B. Meyer could have used as a text-book example of a well-balanced set of implications realised appropriately.

The Red Rosettes and the Song as Performance Guide

redrosettesWednesday night took up to Preston to spend an evening working with the Red Rosettes. In many ways it felt like a classic evening's coaching for me in its focus on exploring the musical material of the song and arrangement as a route to understand its emotional and narrative shape.

We started off by playing with different styles of rhythmic characterisation (discovering a preference in this instance for sling swing and stretch swing), and as so often happens, as soon as the rhythmic feel came into focus, all sorts of other performance details became both more interesting and better executed throughout the chorus. Clarity in musical shape produced better technical control and a more distinctive performance persona.

Calling all Arrangers!

It’s time to start the 2012-13 cycle of the Mutual Mentoring Scheme for Arrangers. For those who haven’t participated before (and indeed those who have but who want to refresh their memories of how it works) there’s an overview here.

The timescale for launching this year's cycle is as follows:

Please let me know by 30 September if you’d like to participate this year. I will then be in touch to introduce you to your partner by 14 October.

I've heard from several people during the year that they'd like to participate in the next cycle - please confirm, though, that you're definitely in. I wouldn't wish to assume either way! And likewise, for people who have participated in any of the previous cycles, let me know whether you're in or out for 2012-13.

I've also heard from several people that they have friends who might be interested - now is the moment to send this link to those friends!

I look forward to hearing from you over the next couple of weeks.

Why it’s Harder to Win Over an Audience in Cabaret-Style Seating

The F-formationThe F-formationAs I mentioned a few months ago, my recent adventures in stand-up comedy have been giving me all kinds of new insights into the performance-audience dynamic. Some of the experiences are no doubt peculiar (in both senses) to the genre, but at the same time they shed light onto things I had previously half-analysed but not fully understood.

Heckling is pretty firmly in the category of ‘peculiar to stand-up’. Indeed, if you are short of things to entertain you on a long train journey, I can recommend speculating about what form a heckle might take at a recital of Mozart piano sonatas. (That thought lasted me halfway from Durham to Darlington.)

But sitting towards the back of a crowded room at the comedy night at my local pub, I learned all kinds of things about audience-performer relationships from a rather drunk person who was determined to join in.

Norwich Harmony, and the Relationship between Voice and Imagination

norwichThursday saw me out East to coach Norwich Harmony at the start of the convention preparation season. They have been making significant strides in recent years in their consistency of control over matters of vocal production and unit sound, and it was interesting to hear how these efforts played out working on different parts of their repertoire.

To start with, there was a clear difference in technical control between a piece they have only recently learned and one that has been in their repertoire for a couple of years. It’s one of the endless dilemmas in developing a chorus that, while keeping songs in the repertoire for longer gives opportunities for depth of learning as familiarity with content frees up attention for other matters, at the same time, each song tends to act as a snap-shot of the skill level the singers had when it was first introduced.

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