June 2015

Time Management, Brain Management

I was having an online conversation with some choral directors recently in which we were grappling with the perennial issue of how to fit in preparation of music. In particular, the issue was the prep needed for special events above and beyond your regular musical activities. The person who started the conversation is going to two training events over the summer that each require prior learning of music and was finding herself in a state of some overwhelm trying to fit this in around an already busy schedule.

This is in a music-specific version of the classic workflow issue of how you accommodate projects within a role that is already full-time. By their nature, projects are relatively short-term commitments that start, go through a period of focused activity, and then finish. So they demand considerable inputs of time and attention, but since they are inherently temporary, you rarely have that kind of time and attention going spare in your capacity. Take on two at once and you get a real bottle-neck.

Learning with Lemov: No Opt Out

One of the first techniques Doug Lemov introduces in his collection of classroom methods is the principle of No Opt Out - the notion that students don’t get to choose whether or not to participate, or indeed whether or not to succeed. It is interesting to consider, both because of the way it typifies his approach of finding practical ways to structure classroom interactions so as to embody a fundamental set of values, and therefore also as a case study for adaptation to the choral rehearsal. The specific form(s) of the interaction will change, but we can still find concrete, actionable steps to embody the principle.

So, the way this plays out in the classroom is as follows. The teacher asks a student a question. If they answer correctly, fine, carry on. If they struggle to answer, or try to slide out of trying to answer by saying ‘I don’t know’, the teacher finds a way to help them out of the impasse, but makes sure the interaction ends up with the student stating the right answer.

Values and Skills Audits with Bristol Fashion

BFjun15Over the last couple of weeks I have been helping Bristol Fashion with a similar kind of review/audit process that I undertook with Hallmark of Harmony back in March. As with that exercise, I am not going to share the detail of what the review produced here - as that is for the chorus use - but I would like to reflect somewhat on the process.

The review with Bristol Fashion worked as a two-stage process. It started off with a visit to observe their Music Team in action on a regular rehearsal night, which produced a report that identified things that are working well (i.e. to make sure they keep doing them!) and areas that can be developed as individuals and as a team.

This was followed, two weeks later, by a second visit in which I facilitated a values- and goal-setting exercise with the whole chorus. The aim of this was for the singers to articulate to each other the things that matter the most to them about their musical life together, and to generate concrete actions that each individual could undertake to enhance their shared experience.

Soapbox: On ‘Leaners’

soapboxThis is a spin-off from my current project of adapting ideas from Doug Lemov’s taxonomy of effective classroom methods to the rehearsal room. As I wrote my introductory post on the project, I had the following tangential thoughts on a subject that is a mainstay of choral discourse.

It is a widely-held truism that ‘leaners’ are a Bad Thing for a choir. Their failings may be treated as moral deficits: that they are lazy in letting other people do their learning for them. Or they may be seen as lacking in ‘talent’, and thus a drag on the choir’s progress. The literature tends to treat them quite impatiently, with the basic imperative that they just need to get a grip and learn to think for themselves. The very label ‘leaner’ places the blame for their condition squarely on their own shoulders.

But it occurred to me when writing about Lemov’s techniques that there are two kinds of leaning going on in choir, and they need quite different solutions.

Learning with Lemov: Taking Classroom Techniques into the Choral Rehearsal

lemovbookI have recently been reading Doug Lemov’s book, Teach Like a Champion, which I have been aware of for some years but only just got around to buying. It is a book aimed at classroom teachers, with the specific aim of helping them develop their skills in how they prepare and deliver classes. It is intensely focused on ‘concrete, specific, and actionable advice’, i.e. stuff you can do immediately and then get fluent at through practice.

I am sure I will be wanting to reflect on some of his techniques in individual posts, but before I launch into the detail, I felt the need to mull in a more general sense on, first, his basic approach, and second, how the circumstances of the rehearsal room inflect the application of his techniques.

The Clancys in Action

Jim Clancy: Not the best pic I've ever taken, but you can see some of the delight he is bringing to the singers on their facesJim Clancy: Not the best pic I've ever taken, but you can see some of the delight he is bringing to the singers on their facesIt was a no-brainer, at the recent BABS Convention, to go along to see Jim and Greg Clancy do a coaching workshop. You want to see how the current and founder directors of the world’s most successful barbershop chorus go about things; and if you’re me you also want to take notes and blog about it afterwards.

And it wasn’t a surprise to see Hallmark of Harmony take to the risers - since they will be representing BABS at the International Convention in Pittsburgh in just a few weeks, they were the obvious candidate for coaching. Then, when the singers took up position for the choreography, the penny finally dropped that I was about to see them coached on the song I had arranged for them. That was an exciting moment, though I did feel a bit dim for not having foreseen it.

Anyway, most of what they worked on would have been the same whatever the chorus was singing, so the rest of this blog post will stop being about me and go back to my original plan of writing about coaching methods. But the bit where Greg did focus in on the detail of the chart was wonderful - homing right in on the features that were there to make it exciting and bringing them into full musical technicolour.

Revitalising Songs with Signature


One of the dilemmas that faces any performer is how, on one hand, to keep their material fresh and interesting in performance while, on the other, rehearsing it deeply to a state of polish and absolute reliability. Or, to put it more bluntly, how do you stop yourself getting bored? Obviously, bringing new material in is part of the mix, but you can’t just keep throwing out the old too quickly, both because that is very wasteful of rehearsal time, but more importantly because both technical expertise and depth insight are built on extended engagement with the material.

This is what I went to help Signature Singers with last Sunday. They have a contest set that they are not done with in terms of the skills and artistry the songs will help them develop, but they were feeling a bit bogged down with it all. Their heads knew they would benefit from working with the songs further, but their hearts were getting a bit jaded.

Workshopping with the Barberfellas

Hey Big Spender!Hey Big Spender!

I spent Saturday afternoon in London doing a bespoke workshop with the Barberfellas, an a cappella ensemble who all also sing with the Pink Singers choir. As their name implies, they specialise in close-harmony music, some of which is barbershop in the purists’ sense (you don’t get much more classic than arrangements by Ed Waesche), and some more stylistically varied, including some material arranged in-house.

My remit for the afternoon fell into two main areas: first a focus on building the classic barbershop ‘ring’ in the sound, and second some work on engaging the audience, both through stagecraft and generating musical expression and variety in performance.

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