Rehearsing

On Shifting Keys

Today’s reflections were sparked by a message from a friend asking the following question:

Question, how do you feel as an arranger, singer, and/or multi-genre musician about the practice of habitually shifting the keys of songs? One of my quartets casually shifts many songs up a tone or more as if it's nothing (including with little notice), and it's putting strain on me both vocally and conceptually. It's alright if the song is simple, but if there are mucho chromatics I have to perform integral calculus as I go, and it breaks my music memory. Can I put my foot down or am I being unreasonable?

It’s a good one, isn’t it? My immediate response was that there needs to be some sort of negotiation here – just because a different key is good for one or two voices, doesn’t make it good for all. And that if they are habitually picking arrangements that comfortably accommodate either low or high voices, but not both at once, they need to have a bit of a think about how they are going about this.

Setting the Tone with Jordan Travis

The collected directors, led in song by Jordan TravisThe collected directors, led in song by Jordan Travis

I spent the weekend at the British Association of Barbershop Singers’ annual Directors Academy, this year led by guest educator Jordan Travis. At the start of the weekend he framed his approach using the metaphor of harmony that is central to barbershop culture: musical harmony as both cause and expression of social harmony.

As the weekend progressed, though, a more specific metaphor seemed to emerge in his twin interests in vocal technique on one hand and chorus culture and values on the other. This crystallised on the Sunday morning while we were analysing the warm-up he had led the delegates through, and he talked about the ways that the warm-up ‘sets the tone’ for the rehearsal to come in both dimensions.

The Christmas Song Paradox

My title today refers to a paradox relating to Christmas repertoire in general, rather than to the specific song of that title. But now I’ve mentioned it, I am going to be self-indulgent and get a few things off my chest.

  1. Why the definite article? Other Christmas songs are available
  2. Nobody dresses up like Eskimos for Christmas. For sure there are all kinds of wintry clichés associated with the festival that have little or nothing to do either with its pagan origins or its appropriation to celebrate a Palestinian-born Messiah. (For example, I don’t recall the gospels mentioning penguins along with the ox and the ass). But the Eskimos line is clearly there for no other purpose than to rhyme with ‘Jack Frost nipping at your nose’.

    And you wouldn’t think it should be too hard to find something else, less absurd, that would fit. Chose, crows, doze, froze, goes, hellos, joes, lows, pose, prose, rose, sews, shows, suppose, toes, those, woes…all those possibilities…

    Yuletide carols being sung by a choir
    And played through speakers made by Bose

    Okay, so this doesn’t pass the ‘less absurd’ test, but it is likely to be more factually accurate.

  3. Everybody knows that candles and some fairy lights help to keep the season bright. Turkeys and mistletoe have their seasonal uses, but not typically as lighting solutions.

On Saying the Same Things Every Week – Again

As I write this title, I realise there’s a pleasant self-referentiality in revisiting this particular subject. Last time I wrote about it, my point was that, instead of getting frustrated with their singers when they find themselves repeating instructions, a director could more usefully consider why their instructions aren’t working and explore different ways to achieve their ends.

Today’s thought shares the point that it is counter-productive for directors to get frustrated by saying the same things week after week, but suggests that this is because sometimes repetition is exactly what is needed.

More on the Use of Language in Rehearsal

I know, I know, it’s a theme I keep coming back to. But along with the physical posture and gesture a conductor uses, their choice of words to address their ensemble makes up the much of the fabric of lived experience in that group. And even the most disciplined director who manages to minimise their verbal instructions needs to say things sometimes.

So, my usual tack through this theme is to encourage directors and coaches to give positive to-dos rather than name the problem. Don’t verbalise the diagnosis (‘delivery is a bit ploddy’), go straight to the intervention (‘sing with more flow’).

Keep doing this, it’s good advice.

Growth, Stagnation, and Affection

When I wrote recently about my theory of affection, I had in the back of my mind a particular application in the relationship between choir and director. I was thinking about how, if a conductor expresses frustration with their choir’s progress (or, rather, the lack thereof), you know that unless they find a way out of that place, their tenure with the choir is likely not to last.

It’s a common enough problem – all choirs go through phases of rapid development and of treading water or even retrenchment as their individual and collective circumstances change over time. And part of a choral director’s resilience is weathering the patches when everything stalls with enough patience to get through to when it all picks up again.

But thinking about the conductor-choir bond in terms of affection shed some new light on it for me. If, as I suggest, affection the results when someone lets you make a difference to them, then there is a particular danger when a director feels they are unable to make a difference: they will start to care less.

The Quality Director

One of the great rewards, as I have remarked before, of working with amateur musicians is that you get to meet and learn from professionals in all kinds of other arenas. I had one such learning experience during my trip to Germany in April, when I had the opportunity to chat at some length with Stef Schmidt, who works, between her intensive bouts of barbershopping, as the director for quality in a manufacturing company.

She was very interesting on the subject of how to engage people in solving existing problems, and, more importantly, in getting them to help prevent future problems before they happen. I immediately wanted to interrogate her on how she uses these skills in her rehearsal processes, and this post is my opportunity to reflect on the notes I took after our conversation.

Paying Compliments with Fascinating Rhythm

FRmusteam

I spent Thursday evening with the Music Team of Fascinating Rhythm chorus in Gloucestershire, sharing a bespoke workshop based on my themed offerings of Musical Music Team and Effective Rehearsal Skills. Thursday is their regular chorus night, so this was a development opportunity not just for their MD, section leaders and assistant section leaders, but also for the team they had deputised to run the rehearsal in their absence.

As the evening progressed, how to pay a compliment emerged as a specific technique to hone. Role-playing section rehearsals to explore the Intervention/Enforcement cycles, it became clear that the team were already quite adept at identifying appropriate interventions, and they took quite readily to framing them briefly and positively. The apparently simpler task of starting off by saying something positive about what they’d just heard took more work.

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