Raising the Game with Amersham A Cappella

amershamjun17

One of the many things I love about my life is the opportunity to both arrange for and coach skilled and up-for-it ensembles. I mentioned my recent arrangement for Amersham A Cappella that they performed at BABS Convention recently when I was reflecting on the quality of lit-up-ness. When I went down to see them on Tuesday to work with them on another new chart, this one destined for the European Convention in October, that excitement was evident again.

(I am sure I have mentioned before how excited I am about the range of new arrangements LABBS choruses will be showcasing to our European visitors this autumn. As well as the four of mine due for premiere, I know of one by Debi Cox and two by Heather Lane due to be unveiled – though all I know about the last two is that they exist. It’s going to be a long contest, but it’s not going to be dull!)

Belles of Three Sessions

Working on back width...Working on back width...I had an action-packed day on Saturday with the Belles of Three Spires, with three quite different types of coaching activity.

We started off with the kind of music coaching you’d expect as a matter of course at this stage of the rehearsal calendar. They are learning a new (to them) song to take to contest in the autumn, and I was there to help them bring out the musical shape and expressive detail.

They had asked me to come and work with them in particular because it happened to be one of my arrangements, but, interestingly, the coaching process is much the same as it is when I coach other people’s music. It’s still a process of identifying the role of various musical features in the overall narrative, to help the singers bring out texture and meaning. It’s just slightly more efficient, since for the parts where I think, ‘What’s going on there then?’ I have a pretty good idea already.

Thoughts on the Shapes of Events

Since the British Association of Barbershop Singers Convention the other week, I’ve been mulling about the emotional shape of events, and what happens when you make changes to them. The specific case is the addition of the Mixed Chorus contest to the last day of the BABS Convention in the last two years, the day after what has traditionally been the emotional focal point of the event, the Quartet Final on Sunday afternoon.

A friend remarked that it felt a bit like the end of Wimbledon, when the men’s final had finished but the mixed doubles were still playing. I think this is an interesting comparison, not least because it captures the sense in both that the mixed genre has lower status.

There are several things that create this sense of being secondary, many of which derive from the timetabling, which does directly disadvantage the participating ensembles. They have a much smaller audience than the other contests, for example, as many people leave on the Sunday night. It is also the only contest not to be followed by an afterglow, which means that the participants don’t get to network with each other very much, or get integrated into the wider barbershop community.

On 'Non-Singers' and Climate Change

I wrote this post some time ago, and had it on the ‘is this just too whimsical to publish?’ pile. But with last week’s alarming news about the US withdrawing from the Paris agreement, it found itself reclassified as, ‘whimsical but weirdly topical’. So here goes.

You may think that ‘non-singers’ and ‘climate change’ are two completely unconnected concepts. And in a general sense, you'd be right. I'm not about to develop a theory that that singing could halt global warming if everyone started doing it. Fun though it would be to try.

No, it's just that I've been thinking about processes of identity-formation again, and I've been intuiting some resonances between the non-singer and the climate-change denier in terms of how they construct and maintain their internal identity narrative. I'm not suggesting there is any connection between the content of those identities. I don't think I know many climate-change deniers, but I'm sure there must be some who are also happy choir-members. Conversely, I know a good many folk on the Green end of the political spectrum, some of whom love to sing, others of whom feel anxious at the very thought of it.

Reflections on BABS 2017 Convention

We go to these beautiful places and spend the whole weekend inside: Just as well the music is good....We go to these beautiful places and spend the whole weekend inside: Just as well the music is good....

As usual, I spent the last weekend in May at the second largest barbershop event outside America. (Well, usually it’s the largest, but the European Convention in October is going to be a doozy this year.)

It was the first BABS Convention since the introduction of the new Performance Category into the judging system. In many ways, this change is completing shift in ethos started when the Presentation Category replaced the old Stage Presence and Interpretation categories back in the 1990s, so it represents a development rather than a step change. But the difference it is making is already perceptible in the performance choices people are making.

What I was expecting less, though, was the effect that the change has had on my experience as an audience member. I found myself less patient than previously with performances that I found mechanical or contrived. It made me realise how much I have been in the habit of forgiving certain habits or mannerisms or skill deficits as simply normal for the genre and not therefore to be worried about.

On Rational and Experiential Objectives

One of the Really Useful Concepts (so useful it needed Gratuitous Capitalisation) that I acquired at my recent course on facilitation skills was the distinction between rational and experiential objectives. It is one of those concepts that is so simple when it is pointed out to you, and in fact describes something you do anyway, but when given a label allows you to do things on purpose to be more effective.

Your rational objective for a workshop or consultation, or indeed for a rehearsal, lesson or practice session, is what you want to achieve by the time you finish. Anyone who has written course materials in higher education is fully familiar with this idea. You spend a lot of your time writing the back end of sentences that start, ‘On successful completion of this module, students will be able to…’.

Playlist 2017 4th commentary

And it’s time for some notes on the additions to 2017's Playlist since my last post about it.

  • Morfydd Llwyn Owen, Nocturne for orchestra in D-flat major (1913). Starting the next tranche of playlist items with the same ‘why did I not know this?’ sentiment from my last commentary. This piece is in some ways so exactly of its time, whilst being a distinct compositional voice I’ve never heard before.
  • Charlotte Bray, At the Speed of Stillness (2012). And a century later than Owen’s piece, an ex-student of mine making her mark
  • Fanny Mendelssohn, Quartet in E-flat (1834). If I had a criticism of this quartet, it would be that I would have liked the first movement in particular to be longer. When it ended, I thought, ‘No, don’t stop, I was enjoying that’.

Rehearsing Efficently with Bristol A Cappella Music Team

As I reported a while back, as well as spending two days coaching the full chorus at Bristol A Cappella at the end of April, I also had a two-hour session with their music team in the evening.

In some ways this was a rather over-ambitious programme of activities. We had an hour between finishing one session and starting the next, and a change of venue also probably helped refresh our attention, but we were nonetheless all pretty tired when we reconvened.

But notwithstanding these hurdles, the timing offered advantages that wouldn’t have been available on a stand-alone session. We had a shared experience during the day we could point back to for examples, and we made explicit use of this at the start by going through a structured reflection process based on my conductors’ four questions.

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