December 2013

Legato - Vocal or Musical?

smoothI first encountered the concept of legato as a young pianist. Which is of course, the least literal medium to engage with it. Every note a pianist plays immediately starts to die; there is no way actually to join the sound up into a line. So legato as a concept was glossed as ‘smooth’ rather than the literal ‘linked’ or ‘joined-up’ of the Italian term, and was achieved by a sleight of hand by which you manage the attacks and releases of notes to create the illusion of continuity.

So when I met ‘legato’ as a concept in singing, I was used to it as an essentially musical, even metaphorical concept. It came as something of a surprise, therefore, to discover how it operates in singing as a central element of technique. ‘Line’ is something that is achieved through a consistency of airflow, placement, and vowel shape.

A Christmas Thank You


Like many choirs, Magenta has had a busy Christmas season, and I always find myself heading into the holiday replete with the satisfaction of how the ensemble consolidates the year’s achievements through this intensive period of activity. I am sure every director feels this wonderful mixture of gratitude and pride when plans come together and the hours of rehearsal translate into delight on the faces of those to whom we sing.

So my Christmas eve post this year is to say thank you. Specifically to the collection of people who form Magenta, and generally, on behalf of choir directors to the singers without whom we could not make music.

On Singling People Out

I recently heard a choral director comment that, ‘I was told, good naturedly, not to single people out in rehearsal this week.’ This made me stop and think, particularly in the context of my recent posts on raising the stakes. The conversation moved on and I didn’t get a chance to follow up the exact situation that elicited this request, so I found myself having an imaginary debate with the person who made it over the rights and wrongs of addressing individuals in a choral situation.

Now, the people who don’t want to be singled out would say, in a general sense, that they don’t like being put on the spot. They choose to sing in a group because they feel safe there.

And the rapacious director who replies that this exactly why people should be singled out has a point. Many choirs suffer from a certain sheep-like tendency for everybody to hide behind each other, vocally and expressively. In these circumstances, having everybody feel a little more individual responsibility for making the music rather than just singing along with it is a Good Thing.

Performing at Trigger Point

Magenta's primary triggerMagenta's primary triggerOne of the techniques from sports psychology that Karen O’Connor shared in her Performing On Your Mind workshop was the use of triggers, or cues. For me, this was one of those lovely moments when a concept crystallised out aspects of my own praxis. By naming the tool, it became possible to analyse it - and also to see ways in which I can apply it more tactically.

(Which is, if you think about it, what a coach is doing a lot of the time anyway: making things that a performers is experiencing perceptually available, and thus also conceptually available. Actually, that’s the function of music analysis too - I hadn’t spotted that parallel until I started this paragraph.)

On the 'Thought Point'

This is another of those posts bringing together bits and bobs from coaching reports about an idea (such as here and here) into one place so I can point to it and say: there, that's where I explain what this is.

The 'thought point' is a concept I have been playing with for a number of years, ever since I first came across David McNeill's concept of 'growth point' - the moment when a thought starts to occur to us. In real-life conversation, you have an inkling first, a motivation, a sense of instability that demands expression. If someone interrupts you before you get to express the idea, you may find it disappears entirely - it is not yet a fully-fledged thought, only the potential for one.

Meet Your Chimp


One of the models that Karen O’Connor shared at her Performing On Your Mind workshop last month was a way of conceptualising different functions of the brain developed by sports psychologist Steve Peters. He divides the brain into three main areas, the frontal region, which operates the logical functions, the limbic region, seat of the emotions, and the parietal region, which acts as storage.

As Karen’s slide (which she has kindly let me share with you) shows, he then characterises these as your ‘human’ brain, your ‘chimp’ brain and your ‘computer’. This is clearly a simplified model of the brain, but its usefulness lies in its very simplicity - and it does at least bear a somewhat more direct relationship with the underlying complexities than the old stereotype of left and right hemispheres. (Which itself has some similarly valuable uses as a reflective tool - it’s just taken rather too literally rather too often.)

Singing, Movement, and Depth of Learning

My recent workshop on voice and movement with Zemel Choir and their workshop guests have given me lots of food for reflection. I am very accustomed to using movement and gesture as rehearsal tools, as well as working with groups that use choreographic presentations as a matter of course. I am less accustomed to introducing these elements to a choir that does not have an established history of them, though.

This means that I have had the opportunity to learn lots about people’s reactions and modes of learning when starting from scratch. (There are echoes here of my session with Cleeve Harmony back in October - it is one thing to teach something when people know what they’re after and just want to learn how to do it, it is quite another when you have to help them imagine as well as execute the vision.)

Performing On Your Mind

Karen O'ConnorKaren O'ConnorI spent all day Thursday at a workshop on applications of sports psychology to musical performance, run by performance coach Karen O'Connor. Karen started out as an oboist (she played with the CBSO for many years), and I knew her when I worked at the Birmingham Conservatoire, where her work with students on mental skills for performance was widely admired

I am sure that knowing of her work has encouraged my own investigations into such things as adrenaline, self-talk and NLP, and it was a delight to hear her present her work, rather than learning about it piecemeal by hearsay. The ideas involved a pleasing mix of things that resonated with my current praxis, and concepts/approaches that were new to me, and the discussions between the delegates added a rich range of different perspectives on them and possibilities for their application. I would highly recommend the day to anyone involved in facilitating performance.

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