Dr Pegram Harrison - In sync: teamwork and performance

Music ensembles are often used as analogies for teamwork and leadership in business.

Previous events in the Engaging with the Humanities series have explored how a conductor interacts with an ensemble to enable them to deliver a good performance.

At the event on 18 October 2017, however, there was no conductor. Dr Pegram Harrison introduced a ‘consort’ of five singers who would work together, with ‘no conductor in a conventional sense’, to rehearse and perform William Byrd’s motet ‘Vigilate’.

This, he said, was ‘analogous to much of the work that gets done in organisations’, through small, newly formed teams with no formal hierarchy. ‘There is no time for lengthy bonding sessions, and the team members sometimes don’t even know each other very well.’ They have to come together quickly, working out each other’s capabilities and developing a modus operandi to deliver their objectives.

Byrd was an English composer who lived through a time of enormous political and religious turbulence, from the Reformation of Henry VIII to the staunch Protestantism of James I’s reign. The Latin text of Vigilate was perhaps unusual at a time when church services were officially conducted in English, and the pictures conjured up by the music do much to explain the words. Pegram told us to listen particularly for the cock-crow.

Getting organised

Before anyone had sung a note, the singers had to work out how they were going to allocate parts, as their voices did not match those for which the piece had been written.

This was done through discussion, with some singers volunteering to try different parts and suggesting different ways in which they could fit the piece to their individual ranges. There was no obvious way to do this, and everyone had to make compromises. Eventually the whole piece was transposed by a tone, and three of the singers agreed to sing outside their usual parts.

One of the altos, James, ending up singing in an entirely different range, which is something he can do, but not something he is normally professionally employed to do. Pegram pointed out that James had to volunteer to make this change, and everyone worked together to agree on a solution that would be comfortable for him.

Making a start

The first sing-through collapsed fairly soon, as the soprano, who started singing first, ‘hadn’t decided on my tempo’. So they started again, having agreed on a tempo as a group. They also reached an easy consensus on how to pronounce the Latin.

There were plenty of smiles and encouraging glances between them as they all got used to their parts. Although they had not sung this piece together before, the singers all knew each other socially and by reputation, so they said they were not afraid of making mistakes.

Working on the difficult bits

The first sing-through sounded good to the untrained ear, though you could tell from the occasional grimaces, embarrassed smiles, and scribbled notes that the singers were not totally satisfied with their individual performances.

They discussed as a group where each singer should have prominence and focused on practising particularly difficult sections.

For one section they abandoned the words and practised singing staccato. As Pegram put it, they were ‘stripping out distractions so they can concentrate on the very difficult bits. ... It’s a bit like stripping your inbox before starting a difficult task’. Once they’d got it right, they sang it through again to make sure. ‘Once is a fluke; twice is a habit,’ said alto and informal ‘conductor’ Tom.

To rehearse another tricky bit they started with just two singers, then brought in a third before trying again with all five parts.

Getting to grips with the interpretation

Having made sure they were comfortable with the technical aspects of the piece, they had to ‘get on the same page’ regarding the subtleties in the text. Pegram reminded the audience that the balance of words and music is ‘intimate’, and we heard conflicting opinions about how to approach the line which translates as ‘Watch therefore, lest coming suddenly, he finds you sleeping.’

Although all thought it important to agree on the interpretation, it was interesting to see one singer really worrying about it and prepared to keep arguing about the tone of the line, while another insisted that there was a point at which ‘we’ve just got to get on with it.’

The final performance was lovely to listen to, and enriched for the audience by having witnessed and understood the rehearsal process.