Explorations in Musical Shape with Cheshire Chord Company


After a series of cancellations on Thursday, Friday and Saturday last week due to weather-related travel disruptions, I was delighted finally to be able to fulfil a coaching commitment on Sunday. My friends at Cheshire Chord Company had invited me back to work through a couple of songs they are currently learning.

We spent the morning on barbershop swing standard ‘That’s Life’. This is a classic chart that always comes over enjoyably in performance, but is often quite generalised in its expression. There is, we discovered, a good deal more scope than you might have guessed both for creating a large-scale arc and for finding nuance in the detail.

Coaching with The Rhubarbs

Classic warm-up pic, this one with natural lightClassic warm-up pic, this one with natural light

The weekend saw me heading off to Germany to work with barbershoppers in Bonn. The plan had been to spend Saturday afternoon with quartet Note-4-Note and Sunday with their chorus, The Rhubarbs, but the winter’s cold viruses had other ideas, and so I ended up with rather more time for sight-seeing time than usual. The Drachenfels makes a wonderful afternoon out, but it was still a pity to miss working with the quartet.

Looking back on the chorus day on Sunday, I am quite astonished at how productive it was. We visited areas including vocal skills, aural skills, story-telling/characterisation, directing skills and stage-craft, as well as the regular problem-solving of details in the repertoire that a coaching session would usually cover. Oh, and re-stacking the chorus by voice timbre.

Basic Conducting Skills with abcd

Our venue for the day: Polish Millenium HouseOur venue for the day: Polish Millenium HouseI spent Saturday in central Birmingham leading a one-day course in basic conducting skills for the Association of British Choral Directors. We had participants representing a wonderful range of choral backgrounds – school choirs, church choirs, barbershop choruses, community choirs of various flavours, musical theatre, chamber choirs, a composer wanting to direct her own work. I had worried a little about meeting everyone’s needs, but in fact the breadth was very useful as it meant that nobody felt like the odd one out in terms of background or activity.

One of the things I particularly enjoy about teaching for the abcd is the way our courses are resolutely practical. Yes, there are topics that need discussion – repertoire choice, rehearsal planning, leadership and people skills – but the hand skills that are both central to and unique to conducting remain at the heart of what we do. Every participant has the opportunity to be coached as they lead the rest of the group in song, and everyone subsequently has the opportunity to review video footage of all the coaching sessions to aid their reflection and onward development.

In Praise of Imperfection

A couple of situations during my workshops at the Holland Harmony education weekend back in September got me reflecting again on our relationship as musicians with error. It’s not just that making mistakes is part of the human condition, so learning to cope with and recover from them is an important part of our musical skillset. It’s that in some situations they have a positive value in their own right.

This first came up in my two workshops on coaching techniques. These were practical classes, with participants coaching a guest quartet leading to discussion points about ways to maximise the effectiveness of the process. The first group was working with a quartet put together for the occasion from the halves of two other quartets, while the second had the current Holland Harmony gold medal quartet, LinQ.

Holland Harmony Education Weekend: Further Reflections

A drawing of what Adam was doingA drawing of what Adam was doingA few weeks on, and I’ve had time to untangle some of the notes in my thinking book about the Holland Harmony education weekend back in September. As I discussed in my main report on the event, both the teaching process and the interactions with other coaches offered manifold opportunities to grow. So here are some of the things I learned that are going to be useful in my ongoing quest to help people make good music.

Peer Learning with Holland Harmony

The weekend's final masterclass, with the New Harvest SingersThe weekend's final masterclass, with the New Harvest Singers

My trip to the Netherlands was precipitated by an invitation to serve on the faculty for an education weekend for Holland Harmony's quartets and musical leaders. It was thus a smaller event, in terms of numbers, than last year’s Harmony College, but it was commensurately more focused. Once again we had an all-star international faculty, delivering a programme of workshops that made all of us wish we had time to go and hear each other’s offerings.

As usual after this kind of intensive weekend, I have a notebook-full of thoughts and reflections stimulated by the experience, some of which will work their way into blog posts over the coming weeks and months as I process them. In the first instance, though, it’s the nature of learning experience itself, rather than the musical content of that learning, that holds my attention.

Emotionally Resilient Choirs: An Addendum

My post a couple of weeks back on On Building an Emotionally Resilient Choir received a response on Facebook that I thought may be of interest to other readers, so I’m following it up here. It’s one of those wonderful questions that choral directing is so full of – simultaneously philosophical and intensely practical:

Interested in finding the balance between "don't be grumpy" and saying "we can work on this" whilst also maintaining an expectation that certain things will be done at home by individuals as preparation for or follow-up to rehearsals.

See what I mean? At the heart of it is the worry that by choosing to be kind to our singers we will have therefore to sacrifice our standards. What if we don’t want to choose between these?

A Dedication of Directors

Director Faculty in actionDirector Faculty in action

There was some discussion after last Saturday’s education day for LABBS chorus directors as to what the collective noun for directors was. We had lots of good suggestions, but I am going with ‘a dedication’ for now because of the way our delegates embraced the preparation we had set for the practical activities with such commitment, resulting in one of the most musically in-depth experiences I have yet managed to orchestrate in a single day.

The coaching model we used was devised, in the first instance, to answer the question as to how to offer practical skills training to lots of people with the resources we had available, You can teach a discussion-based class to a room of 70 people and it works, but hands-on skills need individual attention. In the process, it also answered another question of practical training I have been grappling with – how to develop directors’ musicianship skills. You can communicate ideas in a day, but musicianship takes ongoing work to flourish.

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