Glorious Noteorious

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I spent a goodly chunk of yesterday with current LABBS Quartet champions, Noteorious, for a coaching session on two unremittingly cheerful songs: ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ and ‘Get Happy’. They’re great to work with, because they enter into the imaginative world of what we’re working on so readily. Even if they look like they think I’ve suggested something utterly nonsensical, they jump straight in with both feet and make it work.

Reflecting on our session afterwards, I noticed two interesting things about the process of coaching:

  1. when you get the big picture things sorted, the detail falls into place much more easily
  2. the significant developments are always step changes, not incremental.

So, for instance, the opening section of Don't Stop Me Now needed a gentler, more whimsical feel to set the fast sections in relief, and as soon as Noteorious established that combination of tempo and tone, they started doing all sorts of extra expressive things to colour the lyrics. Making the global change had given them space to respond to the detail of the song much more immediately.

Likewise with ‘Get Happy’, as soon as we’d made large-scale decisions about form, the rhythmic character came into focus, and their voices sounded freer and more comfortable. (Incidentally, the form of Nancy Bergman’s arrangement is, we decided: Shiny, Hanging Loose, Shiny, Ethereal, Hanging Loose, Ethereal, Shiny. It’s important to learn these technical terms, you know.)

Moreover – and this is where the second point comes in – the nitty-gritty work became possible after they had made the big leaps to the new feel of each part of a song. We couldn’t have got to the performance they achieved by adding the detailed touches one by one; they needed to make the step change first, and the ensuing detailed work was a means both to work through the implications of that change and to consolidate the change as something they could live with and develop for themselves.

This process of step-change followed by consolidating detail was particularly apparent with Noteorious because they embrace new possibilities so readily. But I think it generalises well to other coaching situations. It may take longer to effect changes with a less responsive group – but that extra time isn’t spent on change happening more slowly, it’s spent discovering by trial and error what specific approach that group needs in order to let themselves embrace a significant change.

Detailed work is absolutely essential, of course. But it occurs to me that it’s awfully easy to spend a lot of time on it at the wrong point of the process. It’s something you do to secure the reliability and effectiveness of a performance within its current level. But you can’t use it to move to the next level – for that you need to leap out into space and make big changes. Noteorious’s willingness to do that is one of the reasons they got their gold medals in October.

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