July 2015

A Fascinating Rhythmic Widget

If you wonder why all my chorus pics are of warm-ups, that's the only time I have a moment to use the camera!If you wonder why all my chorus pics are of warm-ups, that's the only time I have a moment to use the camera!On Thursday I went down to Bristol for the first of two visits working with Fascinating Rhythm on music they are preparing for the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers Convention in the autumn. The main challenge for the song we were working on in this first visit was getting a handle on Latin rhythms. They were at that point where they felt they were finding their way into the musical world, but not with absolute confidence.

So, what they really needed was a sense of method. It was one thing to work on the rhythms there and then with them, but I wanted to leave them with a set of steps they could go through, both in individual practice, and at subsequent rehearsals, to reconstruct the process we had gone through and so be sure in their own minds that they were getting it right. For a convincing performance, everyone involved needs to know they can make the effect happen at will.

Creating a Charismatic Encounter: LABBS Directors Weekend, Part 2

Cause and Crisis

My last blog post for 2014 was about Facing Our Demons, which was eventually what became the central theme for the LABBS Directors Weekend in July. Looking back at it reminds me of how daunted I felt about putting that weekend together - it was the biggest and scariest thing in my Too-Hard Tray at that point.

Now, I’m not saying that the thought process behind making this the theme for the weekend was, ‘Well if I’m going to be terrified out of my wits I’m going to make sure that everyone else is too’ - though that thought did pass through my head at more than one point. But there was a definite and deliberate sense that I wanted everyone to extend themselves: to stretch beyond their comfort zone, to expand their boundaries. And that included both delegates and faculty.

Creating a Charismatic Encounter: LABBS Directors Weekend

Feeling the love: bestowing a hug and a box of Cadbury's Heros on our guestFeeling the love: bestowing a hug and a box of Cadbury's Heros on our guest


The weekend of 17-19 July was the culmination of my biggest project for 2015: planning and then leading a training weekend for the chorus directors of the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers. I didn’t do it all by myself - I had the support of the organisation’s fabulous events team, who managed all the logistics and communications with delegates, and of a glorious faculty drawn from LABBS’s most skilled and successful directors to help devise and deliver the curriculum. But, still, the project was my baby, and took up a lot of time and attention in the 6 months leading up to it.

Apologies if I sound smug at any point when talking about it. It is merely that I am immensely pleased by how it all went. The director education programme doesn’t get the budget for a big event every year, so it mattered to me that we made the most of it.

Learning with Lemov: Achieving 100%

As an addendum to my post from last week on Lemov’s principle that 100% compliance with instruction is fundamental to the achievements of a class (and by extension, in our context, a choir), I thought it worth going into a little more detail about some of the guidance he gives for how to achieve this. It does sound scarily draconian on first acquaintance, but the point of it is to make the culture of compliance invisible so that everyone just gets on with things without having to stop and belly-ache about it.

His first point is that we should always use the least invasive form of intervention. If you can get someone back on task using just eye contact, that’s all you should use. A reminder to the group as a whole can be a way to reinforce the universality of expectations while bringing attention to the fact they still need to be met. If it needs individualising, you can start this off anonymously - I particularly liked the formulation, ‘Still waiting for 3 people...1 person...and we’re ready to go’ as a way to make individuals accountable without drawing negative attention to them.

How Do I Get to Be an Arranger?

I had an email recently introducing me to a 12-year-old who was expressing an ambition to study music in college and become a barbershop arranger. Some of her questions were unique to her circumstances, but the general issue of what kind of things should she be doing to position herself to be ready at age 18 to fulfil these ambitions are things I thought worth discussing here. After all, though I am mildly boggled at someone having such clearly formed ambitions at that age (I am sure I didn’t!), she is probably not the only person wanting to tread such a path.

So the first thing to point out is that studying music in higher education is moderately unlikely to include studying barbershop arranging per se; it is a genre that may occasionally appear briefly in college curricula, but you can generally expect your education as a barbershopper to be largely self-directed. Don’t let that stop you studying music; I’m just clarifying so as to set your expectations. Studying music will make you a much better barbershopper, and doing barbershop will be great for your musicianship. Just be aware that it is a niche specialism within a wider discipline.

Learning with Lemov: Right is Right, 100%

As I read through my last post on Lemov’s classroom techniques in preparation for starting this one, I noticed how certain central themes are already emerging. In particular, the principle that giving people the discretion to decide whether they commit their efforts and attention to the job in hand makes it harder for everyone to get on with it also lies at the heart of the two elements I’m going to look at today.

Lemov places ‘Right is Right’ and ‘100%’ in different sections of the book, the first in the section on setting high academic expectations, the second in the section about setting and maintaining high expectations for behaviour. Of course, both sections are about expectation-setting, so it is perhaps not surprising that their content resonates together. But it seemed to me that the two principles are much closer in the choral rehearsal than they are in the classroom, and it will be interesting to explore why.

On Phrase-end Swipes

swipeSo, this is a fairly niche post. Not only are barbershop arrangers a reasonably niche interest group at the best of times, but to talk about one particular type of embellishment, in one particular point of the musical structure, is getting pretty specialised. But this post actually grew out of a conversation with a performer about issues they were having with a particular piece of music, so it matters. If in a rather niche way.*

For those dropping in from other musical traditions: the swipe is what we call it in barbershop where the chord changes within a held syllable. This may entail the lead holding a melody note while the other three parts change notes, or it may involve all four parts changing at once. In the latter case, the lead is often switching role from melodic focus to part of the harmonic background in the process, so these ones require rather more sophistication to bring off.

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