Having People Sing At Their Computers Is Not Stupid (Or: Experiences Of Doing A Masterclass Online)
Usually, a big part of my professional life is doing workshops, coachings and masterclasses, meeting new choirs and vocal groups on a frequent basis and helping them for a shorter period of time. During the first week of physical distancing, all the workshops booked for March, April and May were cancelled or postponed. Then something happened. A new request came in. Kamarikuoro Värinä had brainstormed ideas for activities in the spring, and they wished to include a masterclass about rhythmic music*) with me, on distance.
Värinä & me in action pre-covid-19. Photography: Mikko Reinikainen & Frida Lönnroos (DUNK).
Värinäs profile is one of a candid classical chamber choir that is unafraid of diving into new challenges. Previously, they had organised similar master classes about reneissance music and gospel. Now they wished to learn about rhythmic music, and specifically learn how to work further on Anders Edenroth's "Words", originally written for and performed by The Real Group.
So I got going with planning a set of two sessions, 55min each. The choir had not done any rehearsal recordings on the piece during their pre-distance rehearsals, so I couldn't rely on any variation of my usual plan of action ("listen to the client, put improvement ideas in strict order of priority, then teach out the appropriate tools"). Also, our first session was scheduled to be the opener of the choirs' first official gathering online, so it felt important to keep the technical execution of our sessions pretty simple.
Our first session
My working title for our first session was "Rhythmic music in choir - technical basics". We did an interactive warmup, talked about the basics of groove and how it affects conducting rhythmic music, went through what a groove consists of, identified the groove in our song with written and demoed examples and talked about how I usually go about with practising these things. I presented my take on how different endings are a central point of the phrasing, and had the participants listen to and name different endings in the song (demonstrated in a carefully drafted exercise sheet). To round it off, I sent the singers out on a digital listening adventure (there are hundreds of different interpretations on the song out there - so gathering a playlist of 10+ different cases was easy) as homework.
It was by no means a bad session. On the contrary, the singers seemed genuinely interested in the topic. However, afterwards I realized how incredibly lecture-escue it had turned out. In the feedback questionnare afterwards, many of the answers to "What would you learn next time?" and "What is most difficult in singing 'Words'?" were about things I thought that I had just covered. "Could we sing more, if there is time?" someone had suggested. Spot on!
I recently heard that in an average distance conference, in order to remain engaged, the participants should be activated every 5 minutes. When I looked back at my planning for the first session, I realized that I had been nervous to have this new group doing things with me - things that I am very comfortable in doing with singers more familiar to me. What would these new people think? What if someone would be totally weirded out by the singing on their own by a screen? What if they would think that I am silly? So I had resorted to the more traditional means of proving my expertese: talking, giving them an exercise on paper, talking, asking for questions, then talking more, showing how something is done and then talking again - always me talking and them listening! I needed to have us doing stuff together in order for the knowledge to become actively theirs. And I already knew much of the means for facilitating that, as I had experimented with my own groups for 3+ weeks.
Our second session
As you can probably imagine, our second session was much more action-centered. We did some dancing for a warmup, and then connected that to the groove of the song (that we had previously identified). We experimented with vowel placement, and compared how much further in the mouth the general balance in this music style is felt. We explored what introducing a little cry (Estill Voice Technique) could give to the sound, moving it from a neutral, choral place to somewhere a bit more appropriate. The homework was discussed in smaller groups. Then, we did some groove training with agreeing on certain ghost notes and doing them together (singers on mute, me guiding everyone) in a groovy rehearsal tempo.
Homework assignment & visualisation of ghost notes.
As I couldn't hear the results of our workshop put together (as no-one of us could, at least in real time!), I cannot compliment the incredible trajectory of the group or describe how much the singing improved during the session. However, I did get the impression that the participants got a lot out of it, and that they understood what we were after. They asked good questions, and also had great pointers to share with each other. Going for the doing did not exactly rid me of my nerves (you should have heard how my voice shook when attempting to do some demonstrations of the cry mentioned earlier!) but I could sense the effect it had on the group. It was definitely a welcomed addition to our theory-packed beginning. Also, in defence of that first session, we were able to tackle a lot more praxis now, having established certain terms and approaches together.
Lessons learned and considerations for the future
This current distance situation brings me again and again back to the basics. It is surprising how much a new environment can impact ones' confidence, even when the topic is something at the very core of your professional skillset! Always trust the people you meet with being empathic and supportive, because they are that if you just allow them to. Also, can we take a moment to commend the courage and trust that Värinä displayed in letting me lead two sessions in this new environment, and wanting to employ a freelancing guest conductor in this tumultuous time?
Excited singers after the first session. Source: Värinäs Facebook-page (borrowed with permission).
I don't think that we have even begun to understand the possibilities that the current necessities have brought upon us. Kamarikuoro Värinä is a Helsinki-based group, but for all I know, they could have been in New Zealand, and our experience in front of the screens would probably have been pretty much the same. Once we're out of the immediate distancing, we need to remember the opportunities of coaching groups online, having the group in one location, and the leader guiding the situation from elsewhere. Perhaps this could be a complement when working with groups over a longer distance, igniting the collaboration ahead of time, before meeting in person?
Kamarikuoro Värinäs conductor Noora Hirn has kindly promised to write a few lines about her experience as a participant of the workshop. That post will be coming up shortly.
*) Rhythmic music (rytmimusiikki in Finnish) is one of the many attempts to name the subcategory of the non-classical music tradition. ‘Rhythmic’ in this context is not intended as a literal reference to rhythm, or to imply that classical music has no rhythm. Pop/jazz-music (pop/jazz-musiikki in Finnish), popular music, afro-american music, contemporary commercial music and what is referred to in Finnish as viihdemusiikki (entertainment music) and kevyt musiikki (light music) are all terms used (loosely speaking) for similar purposes. (Source: my thesis, footnote on page 7)