September 2013

Emergency Moments: Care of the Voice

I had a question by email the other day that my correspondent thought 'might make an (urgent) blog post' - as she recognised it is unlikely just to be her and her friends dealing with it.

Competition in 10 days time...problem with voices - people have sore throats from the changing weather, people have tired voices...even breathing was a problem.

How do we get around it?

I suspect that we should have put things in place months ago to avoid this 'stamina' issue, but it is very common.

Should we rest our voices? Can we do effective practice without singing?!

So I think she might be right there. This sounds a very normal problem to be facing.

Digging Deeper with the Red Rosettes

Red Rosettes Sept 2013Sunday saw my final, and longest, visit to the Red Rosettes before they fly off to Ireland to participate in this year’s IABS Convention. Having seen them in May, and then a month ago, it was cheering to be able to tell them that I could hear their progress from each visit to the next. This is what you’d hope would happen, of course, but it’s not always perceptible to the people plugging away week in week out.

At this stage of proceedings, it is of course far too late to mess with the general game plan. Whilst I usually describe my role as to go around messing with people’s heads, it’s also one of my life’s goals to increase people’s confidence, and making late changes to performances is a good way to have the opposite effect. So, apart from focusing in on a few isolated technical details that would benefit from specific attention, the day’s activities focused on taking a well-shaped and well-prepared performance, and making it more vivid.

Thoughts on Shadowing

Every so often I get a request to for someone to observe me while I'm working with an ensemble, and I'm writing this post partly so I can point people to it rather than writing very long emails in reply every time! But working through my thoughts about it has also been interesting, and I like to share when I think I've learned something.

So, there are two basic scenarios, and I have found they elicit quite different responses.

Scenario 1: the ensemble I'll be working with contacts me to say they have a visitor who would like to watch, and do I mind? My answer: no problem!

Scenario 2: somebody I know gets in touch with me to ask if they can come and watch when I do some coaching. My response: not comfortable.

Soapbox: Ear Singing versus Rote Learning

soapboxRegular readers will be familiar with this theme from previous occasions when I have climbed up onto my soapbox, such as here), or more helpfully and less rantingly, here. So you know the general point already: if people insist on using parrot-fashion as a primary learning method, you can't be surprised if you end up with a choir of bird-brains. Follow the links for the reasoning, we don't need to repeat it all again.

Instead I am going to share with you a penny-drop moment I had when in recent dialogue with some proponents of the Kodály method. For those who are not very familiar with their approach, it is all about building musicianship. A combination of singing and clapping and gestural vocabulary helps build a robust inner musical landscape that acts as a foundation for all other musical activity. It's good stuff.

On When, and How Much, to Prioritise

I was part of an online conversation recently that started with the following question:

Ok, so singing - what one craft skill would you teach and work on, that would give a chorus a really good improvement?

It got lots of useful replies, both about what different directors were finding useful with their groups, and about the process of prioritising according to the needs of the people you're working with.

But as I read, I found myself wondering more about the premise of the question. To what extent is it useful to focus on a single skill in developing a choral group?

On Avoiding Hack

I'm writing this post while in the middle of arranging a song destined to be part of a barbershop contest package. So I am thinking very specifically about the craft of producing contest-grade barbershop, though I suspect I may find myself ranging more widely by the time I'm done. It is very much writing-to-figure-out-exactly-what-this-thought-I-am-trying-to-have mode, so I may ramble. You have been warned.

(Of course, if the thought ends up being especially trite, I have the option of never posting it. Though I might enjoy the irony of engaging in deep thought to come up with a truism. That in itself might say something about the subject.)

So, 'hack' is the phrase used in stand-up comedy for material on themes that are over-used. It is an insult that includes both lack of creativity (you couldn't think of anything original to say) and laziness (you came up with the most obvious joke, then stopped working). The term is, I imagine, derived from 'hackneyed' in the more general sense, as tired and clichéd, but there is a specificity to its usage in comedy that I find interesting.

Melodic Musings in Merseyside

merseyI spent Sunday up in Liverpool with the ladies of Mersey Harmony. It was the first time I’d worked with the chorus, but I knew their director Lesley from my sessions with Cheshire Chord Company. There is a wonderful synergy in the way the premier ensembles in a region serve as training grounds for the musical leaders of neighbouring groups, and the northwest is one of the country’s real hotbeds of barbershop activity.

We spent a lot of the morning session on some intensive work on smoothing out the melodic flow in their contest up-tune. This is an enterprise that has both technical and imaginative dimensions, and thus involves adjustments to both physical habits of execution and mental habits of musical thinking. Part of my task, indeed, was working out what combination of the two they needed: was the slightly over-wordy delivery a function of incomplete control of vowel placement or of an over-investment in the rhythmic qualities of the lyric?

Out of the End-of-August Doldrums

Red Rosettes Aug 2013
Wednesday evening took me up to Preston for another visit to the Red Rosettes. It is less than six weeks now until they head over to Ireland for the IABS Convention, and so are starting to gear themselves up to contest rather earlier in the year than they would normally for the rhythm of the British women’s barbershop year.

Many choruses find the summer the slow season, as people’s holidays keep attendance down over a period of 6-8 weeks. Indeed, many choral groups deal with this by taking a break over the summer, though this is rarer in barbershop world, where the performance seasons are regulated by events that are not particularly tied in to school terms.

So, out of a series of specific musical and technical tasks for the evening arose a bigger task of connecting back with the Red Rosettes as they are at peak performance, to put this slow season behind them for their convention preparation.

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