Yes, Chef! – Professional Development Includes Listening

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listeningBy Brody McDonald

There’s a lot of talk about professional development. Rightfully so. It’s important. There’s always something new to learn, so CEUs, graduate courses, and conference seminars can help us become better directors. I’m not here to say “don’t do that stuff.” However, I’m here to touch on another side of professional development: personal development. Directors are people, and as such, personal growth = professional growth. What are some ways we can improve ourselves outside standard professional development?

Expand your horizons…

Have you considered stretching yourself as a musician by exploring new styles of vocal music? I give enormous credit to barbershop harmony singing as part of my success as a choral director. Barbershop harmony is fantastic to develop precise tuning, vowel match, chord balance, and musical line. Deke Sharon calls barbershop “a cappella’s martial art.” Barbershop is among the toughest vocal music to sing well, and when executed properly always generates excitement. The Barbershop Harmony Society (www.barbershop.org, for men) and Sweet Adelines, International (www.sweetadelines.com, for women) both have fantastic packets for interested music educators.

Do you feel like jumping in on the hottest vocal trend, pop a cappella? Look no further than the A Cappella Education Association (www.acapellaeducators.com). Membership is free, and there is a function on the website for free a cappella advice as well. CEUs can be earned by attending their national conference, the National A Cappella Convention, April 22-23, 2016 (www.acappellaconvention.com). Another website to consider is www.acapella.how, which contains tutorial videos on many a cappella-related subjects. There are also multiple camps sprouting up across the country, but I’m biased towards the one Deke Sharon and I founded: Camp A Cappella (www.campacappella.com), which has a specific track for music educators which includes help with both directing and performing.

Spend some time listening…

Let’s face it people, we are in the listening business. In order to be great choral directors/singers, we have to listen all the time. And I’m sure you understand there is a big difference between listening and hearing. Hearing is just the main physical activity where sound is processed into your brain. Listening is actively scanning that sound for content.

Read a book…

In this case, I’m not suggesting you read another choral methods book, or even a philosophical tome like The Inner Game of Music. I’m talking about books on leadership or even business. We are, after all, running what could be considered a small business. We have workers (singers), a product (music) and clients (the audience). I wouldn’t have started down this path were it not for a booster parent who was also a local business owner who saw me struggling as a first-year teacher and gave me The One-Minute Manager. Since then, I have been addicted. I have learned a lot about success and human dynamics from such books as the ones listed below. There are dozens of others, but here’s a few I love, and why:

Good to Great by Jim Collins – Jim looks at businesses in pairs, and then highlights principles of success by comparing the two, illustrating how one became more successful than the other. Yes, this book is about businesses, but these concepts have merit when applied to choirs. 

Built to Last, also by Jim Collins – Learning the value of “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” alone is worth the whole book.

7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey – This book is designed to help the reader move through three stages of development: dependence, independence, and interdependence. 

Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success by John Wooden and Jay Carly – John Wooden’s pyramid of success is a marvel, and is broken down into blocks that can be easily understood, even by young students. I read the book first, then used one block per week as a focus for my choir.

The One Minute Manager by Kenneth H. Blanchard and Spencer Johnson – This is a short, easy read that can help you improve your managing skills, improve rapport with students, and save time.

Study the best…

There’s immense value in studying anyone who is the best at anything. Watch them do their thing. Question how they make it happen. Listen to interviews and read about them. Quality is universal, and traits of the successful are often transferable. I find it to be an interesting mental exercise to see if I can take the practices of someone at the top of their game, and then translate it into choir scenarios. It is time spent thinking about my craft, and gives me some analogies to use with my choir. I’ll close with an example where I look at what choirs can learn from celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay. 

Gordon Ramsay Shows Us a Recipe For Success 

I don’t watch a lot of television, but I do have a weakness for Gordon Ramsay shows. Hell’s Kitchen, Kitchen Nightmares, The F Word and even Hotel Hell. If Gordon is on, I’m watching. I can’t help it – I love the guy. His passion and high standards mixed with a certain “colorful” presentation just hit the mark for me.

Another reason I like watching Gordon is that I love to watch anyone who is the best at what they do. I don’t even have to like what it is they’re doing. The excellence trips my trigger. So I look to the best to learn whatever I can apply to my craft of choral music. What does Gordon Ramsay have to say to musicians? If you can buy into an extended culinary metaphor, quite a lot.

1) Have high standardsIt’s important that everything is important. I once heard that Jim Miller (director of the international champion barbershop choruses The Louisville Thoroughbreds and Southern Gateway Chorus) said that if you wanted to be the best, you had to do everything the best. You had to have the shiniest shoes. If you made coffee for a chorus function, it had to be the best coffee. If Gordon were in charge of a choir, he’d say everything matters: posture, face, breath control, vowel shapes, resonance, attacks, releases, dynamics, word stress, visual package and even clothing must be planned and executed right down to a gnat’s eyelash.

2) Manage your stationIn the kitchen, there are multiple stations: garnish, fish, meat, dessert, etc. Some restaurants even go so far as to have a saucier. Each chef is in charge of running their own station, but not in a vacuum. They must all receive the orders from the head chef, then communicate constantly with each other to ensure that the table’s food is all finished at the same time. Every singer has a role to play within the choir. They must not only know their role, but execute it at a high level that coordinates with the rest of the ensemble to maximize the performance. This includes aspects of tuning, chord balance, synchronization, and texture. And of course, every station has to coordinate with the head chef. Every part of the ensemble must be coordinated with the director.

3) Stop it at the pass“The pass” is where the head chef not only calls out orders, but coordinates with the brigade to ensure that food comes out in a timely fashion: (a) all the dishes for one table at the same time and (b) appetizer, entree, and dessert all go out in proper intervals. (No one wants the entree to show up at the same time as the appetizer!) The head chef is also responsible for quality control. If a piece of fish is still raw, it gets sent back to be re-fired. If it’s burnt, the dish has to be re-done completely. Why wait until the customer discovers the mistake and then complains? The head chef proactively prevents customer dissatisfaction. So, too, the director must stop bad singing “at the pass.” In rehearsal, any substandard singing must be sent back and re-fired until it is correct. Singers, like line chefs, must learn to sing to the standards laid out by the director. Singers are prone to singing “their way” which can mean that important details get overlooked. Singing must be crafted: vowels shaped, air moved at specific speeds, consonants produced in a way that enhances rather than detracts from the tone. Just as a chef should not bother sending raw fish to the pass (it will be sent straight back), singers should learn what product will pass muster for the director (and thus the audience).

4) Let the ingredients speaksometimes chefs on the various Ramsay shows fall prey to one of two traps: (1) cutting corners by using cheaper ingredients (2) using quality ingredients but throwing the kitchen sink at the recipe until the diner can’t tell what is the “star” of the dish. In the case of singers, the star of the dish is always their tone. Yes, there are considerations of style in each piece. Yes, there are sometimes soloistic stylings that occur in pop music. Yes, there are dynamics, articulations, cutoffs, tunings, etc. that enhance the music. However, we should rarely sacrifice our tone to make them happen. What good does it do to sing immaculately in-tune with a forced, tense tone? No good at all. When the singer modifies their tone to be more pleasing, the tuning will change. Now they have to start over to keep the good tone and get it back in tune. Always sing with a freely-produced, resonant tone and only add musical/stylistic enhancements that can be done while maintaining great sound.

In the case of the overall ensemble, the star of the dish is the song. The ensemble exists to provide the audience with music. We’ve all heard the singer who mutilates the national anthem by adding runs upon runs upon runs until the melody is obliterated. We’ve all heard arrangements that are so concerned with being difficult or clever that they mar the impact of the actual song. What good are vocal pyrotechnics and difficult arrangements if the song doesn’t speak to the audience?

Brody McDonald is the director of choirs at Kettering Fairmont High School. Under his leadership, his curricular choirs have consistently earned the highest ratings at state level contest and have been featured at numerous conventions. He is at the forefront of the a cappella movement, serving as a founding member and the vice president of the A Cappella Education Association. His a cappella ensemble, Eleventh Hour, was the first high school group ever to compete on NBC’s The Sing-Off. Brody is also the author of A Cappella Pop: A Complete Guide to Contemporary A Cappella Singing. Brody has recently joined the faculty at Wright State University as director of a cappella studies. He has partnered with Deke Sharon to launch Camp A Cappella, a summer camp designed to immerse singers in the contemporary a cappella style, which will take place June 23-28, 2015 at Wright State University. For more information, please visit  campacappella.com and brodymcdonald.com.

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