On Asking Questions in Rehearsal

At last year’s A Cappella Spring Fest I ran a session for choir members about how to get the most out of rehearsals. It was partly about how to prepare for and review rehearsals in between to consolidate, but also about things you can do during the rehearsal itself. One specific item we covered was about asking questions in rehearsal – when and how to do it. I’m coming back to write about this now because I’ve had several conversations about it recently and so it seems a good moment to share those discussions.

From a director’s perspective, questions from choir members are a mixed blessing. On one hand they give you really clear information about the singers’ needs, and how the whole process is being experienced from within the ensemble. This is information we want and need. On the other hand, they slow the rehearsal down by increasing the talk:music ratio, and their timing often distracts the whole choir from the rehearsal focus of the moment.

So, the question is: how do we gather that vital information without breaking the flow of the rehearsal?

Soapbox: On Transcending Technique

soapboxWhen I had been lecturing just a few years, I was entertained to look back and notice how my focus had shifted over time.

During the first year, when I was doing everything anew, content was king: structuring lectures, choosing musical examples, figuring out what amongst the infinite possibilities it was most important for my students to learn. During the second year, when I had a stash of content to work from, I was focused on the how rather than the what: the variety of learning activities, reaching different learning styles. During the third year I mostly seemed to obsess about heating and oxygen levels in the classrooms.

This memory came back to me recently as I reflected on a theme I’ve heard reasonably often when experienced musicians are teaching the less experienced.

Gesturing with the A Cappella Ladies

InnigInnigWhen we planned our trip to Germany, the plan was to start in Munich and then travel up through the country by train to eventually make our way to Brussels for the Eurostar back to England. We were just dithering about which of the many possible routes we could take to do this when the A Cappella Ladies helped us into a decision by inviting me to coach them on the Wednesday after the Barbershop Musikfestival.

Their director since November is Stefanie Schmidt, who was one of the first friends I made at my first BinG! Harmony College back in 2015. I had worked with her in quartet, and it was a delight to work with her now in her capacity as a director.

Working with the Munich Show Chorus Music Team

MunichShowChorus

After the Barbershop Musikfestival last weekend, we stayed on in Munich for a couple of days so that I could do an evening’s music team training with the world champion mixed chorus on their next Tuesday rehearsal. Of course, when we made the arrangements to do this, they were merely the Munich Show Chorus, but I think they could get to like their new accolade.

Three days after contest is not your orthodox moment to bring in an external coach, but they had devised an imaginative way to use my availability in the city combined with starting a new repertoire project for a concert in the summer.

BinG! Barbershop Musikfestival 2018

BinGBMF18It must be nearly a year ago that I played a new arrangement through to Jonathan before sending it off the chorus who had commissioned it, and he said, ‘Oh it would be nice to hear it sung’. And thus our vague intention to go to a Barbershop in Germany convention one day crystallised into the plan to make 2018 the year.

Jonathan was right, by the way. The Harmunichs’ performance of my medley of Queen’s ‘Play the Game’ and ‘Killer Queen’ was a total delight to behold. The standing ovation they received suggested that I was not the only person to think this, as did the aggregate score of 86.3% which won them the chorus championship decisively.

Reflections from the Recording Studio

I spent all day Easter Saturday with groups of singers in a small recording studio. This was part of a hymn project I’ve been helping a midlands-based church community with for a few months. Hitherto my involvement has been with the full choir, working on vocal techniques and choral craft; this was the first time I’d actually been in the studio with them.

Most of my previous recording experience has been as a singer (or occasionally in a consultant’s role as arranger), so I’m finding it interesting to reflect on how the role of conductor and coach plays out in this context. My previous recording experience has also been with full musical textures and relatively long arcs of musical time, whereas the weekend’s procedure was working with individual sections (or in some cases, half a section at a time), and taking the music in 8- or 16-bar units.

Making Music the Mantunian Way

Action shot of Sitting-Standing-KneelingAction shot of Sitting-Standing-Kneeling

Last Sunday took me up to Manchester to work with Mantunian Way, the men’s chorus from the Manchester University Barbershop Society. They are preparing for the BABS Convention in Harrogate in May, and this was their last rehearsal before a three week break over Easter. It is a rehearsal rhythm driven by university term times, and it has some drawbacks in terms of loss of momentum, but it also offers some advantages. When you come back after a break, some things are forgotten, others have embedded themselves without you noticing and are suddenly fluent.

It is an intelligent chorus – university students are by definition people who are in the habit of absorbing and applying new ideas – and as I coached I had my eyes not just on their performance in two months time, but in the potential for this cohort to produce barbershop’s leaders of tomorrow. We dealt not just in what to do with particular moments of songs, but generalisable principles that can be applied to other repertoire in other circumstances.

Exploring Breath and Emotion with The Venus Effect

VEmar18

On Friday night I finally got to have the coaching session with The Venus Effect that we had had to cancel for snow three weeks earlier. It was the first time I’d heard them since our session just before I disappeared to Australia and I was looking forward to hearing what they’d done with the techniques for unit sound we’d worked on then.

It turns out that regular technical work makes a difference. Who knew?

We spent part of the session extending this work. In exercises we played with alternating adjacent vowels on a unison to hear the shifting overtones. This translates in repertoire to the experience of harmonically static passages where the colours shift with the different vowels sounds of the lyric. It was notable both that it was very clear which songs had already been subject to this kind of close-listening and which hadn’t, and how much more fluently the quartet achieved good results when applying them to new repertoire than four months ago.

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