A Hallmark of Trust

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HallmarkI spent a most interesting and productive evening on Tuesday evening with Hallmark of Harmony in Sheffield. They are in the process of developing a five-year plan for the chorus: they have already identified their four primary goals, and have a working-group assigned to each generating ideas about how they will achieve them. They asked me to come along in advisory role to work with them in profiling development needs for both chorus and musical leadership team.

The plan was, therefore, to meet with their director, Andy Allen, and some of the Music Team before the rehearsal, then to go and spend the first part of the rehearsal observing. They had organised things carefully so that I had opportunities to see all of the team in action. Then, in the second half of the evening, I took on a more orthodox coaching role, working with both the chorus and directors.

I spent the following morning writing up a report feeding back recommendations for development, with the aim that it would be useful for them to use within the team as they work together, as a basis for undertaking training on an individual basis, and as a resource for visiting coaches (which may include me alongside their existing regular experts).

I’m not going to tell you about the nitty-gritty of what we discussed, as that’s for their internal use,* but I did want to reflect on the process itself. The first thing to note is just how much you can observe if you just sit and take notes for an hour and a quarter. Admittedly, I am very practised at this – it was a primary research method for my choral conducting book, and I found myself slipping straight back into a note-taking mode that uses the act of recording as a way store and later trigger specific and detailed memories of what people did.

An immediate (and, for me, not consciously anticipated) result of this is that my coaching after the break went straight for the jugular. All the usual easing-in phase of feeling the chorus out, getting a sense of where they’re at had been done, as far as I was concerned, during the first part of the evening. So within minutes I was getting right in working with individuals on rhythmic characterisation. Which, on reflection, might have been a bit of a shock to their system, as until that moment I had not impinged on their consciousness very much at all – indeed, part of my note-taking regime is to avoid drawing attention to myself so that I can observe musicians in their ‘natural habitat’. Still, they quickly got the hang of a back-beat, which is what matters.

A third thing to note is how much trust within the chorus as a whole and within the Music Team in particular is revealed by the decision to invite an outsider to come along in this kind of role. It’s one thing to ask a coach in to work with you on specific performance skills, but it’s a whole extra level to have someone in to work with you on how you go about the entire process of skill acquisition.

This trust had a very specific and public aspect when I worked with Assistant Director Peter Byrant on his directing skills with the chorus. This is such a valuable way of going about things, as it strengthens the bond between director and singers at the same time as it hones the director’s technique. The feedback from the chorus gives direct reinforcement on the value of adjustments to technique, which is especially valuable when (as is often the case) the strangeness the director feels in making the change could lead them to doubt the usefulness of the change. And I have to say I was most impressed by Peter’s adaptability – you could tell he was having to really work to make the changes, but he went about it with real focus. You could almost hear the myelin-growth.

On a personal note, I had coached this chorus a few times back in 2003, and while there has been a considerable change-over of membership since then, one guy not only remembered me but had found and printed out a follow-up email I had sent to the then director after one of my visits. It was really interesting to see what we had been working on back then, and I’m pleased to say that I still agree with my past self’s take on things. Thanks Tim H!

*Is it just me, or did anyone else get the image of them actually eating the report from that turn of phrase? Well, at least I hope they digest it…

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