Preparing to be Coached in Conducting

This post was written as guidance notes for delegates to the LABBS/BABS Directors Weekend coming up in January. I’m sharing it via my blog because it has a wider applicability that goes beyond that one event. And if you’re not coming to the event, now you know what you’ll be missing!

Directing somebody else’s chorus is, as Sally McLean puts it, like wearing somebody else’s shoes. However experienced you are as conductor, it always feels weird at first. So, don’t worry, everybody feels like this, but we still do it because you can learn a lot from it, and it’s always lovely to have people singing with you, even in slightly unnerving circumstances. Bear in mind that your coaches at the weekend are also receiving coaching themselves, so will know exactly what it feels like!

These notes are to help you prepare for the experience. Both in terms of things you can do ahead of time to make the most of the coaching session, and in terms of letting you know what to expect.

On Managing Persistent Mistakes: Part 2 – Cure

In my last past, I reflected on ways to support singers in learning their music accurately, to save everyone the frustration of having to unlearn and relearn, which is much harder. But of course, as you are working with human beings, you will still encounter times where people have learned something wrong. And, like the scenario that prompted these posts, the problem is often not getting people to correct their errors, but of keeping them corrected.

I have been thinking about this from two perspectives. The first is how to interrupt the behaviour pattern that includes the mistake(s). A persistent error is persistent because it has been practised, and if you want to replace that pattern with something else, you need to prevent them strengthening that neural pathway any more. In Alexander Technique terms, this is called Inhibition.

On Managing Persistent Mistakes: Part 1 - Prevention

There was an interesting conversation recently in a Facebook group for chorus directors about the challenge of a singer who was consistently getting some notes wrong. They were able to sing the right notes correctly in section, but reverted to the wrongly-learned version when back in the full ensemble.

The director who raised the question framed it in terms of the dilemmas of expectation-setting and qualification for participation in performances. They didn’t want to be the kind of group who excluded people, but equally the errors were disturbing other singers and obviously had an impact on the quality of performances. The ensuing discussion included a lot of wisdom about setting up systems to manage quality control in the context of individual development. The shared goal was to support people to succeed.

On Musicking in the Moment

Music is, by definition, a time-based art-form, so producing sounds one after another is inherent to its praxis. But, as I explored a few years back, the unrelenting march of musical time can create unhelpful pressures on musicians, and, when not actually performing, it is often valuable to suspend time and let moments elongate themselves around you.

I recently remembered a lovely exercise that Jim Henry did with the White Rosettes at the LABBS Directors Weekend in 2015. He had them sing the target vowel of a particular syllable in the lyric of their song, but without knowing until he signalled whether they were going to sing that word, or another with the same vowel. I forget which actual words were involved, but for example sustaining ‘moo’, without knowing until the signal whether the word was going to become ‘moon’ or ‘mood’.

How Listen and Do at the Same Time

One of the biggest challenges that novice choral directors face is learning how to listen to the singers at the same time as directing them. It sounds so simple, written like that, and is clearly fundamental to the conductor’s task, but as people new to the activity invariably discover, it is easier said than done.

You see, we each only have the one brain each. And if that brain needs to pay a lot of attention to unfamiliar motor skills in the context of complex musical content, it doesn’t have very many cognitive resources left over to dedicate to the sound coming into it. As one acquires experience, the raw panic of overwhelm subsides, but the challenge remains. There is a lot going on when you conduct a choir – all those people singing at once, each with their specific musical and personal needs - and we still have only the one brain with which to process it all.

Musings on Section Leadership

This post emerges from having a number of conversations over quite a long period of time, and noticing a pattern that needs interrogating. I don’t know if by the end of it I’ll have any answers, but I hope to have a better handle on the questions, which is arguably the most useful stage.

The conversations have been with choir directors, mostly (though not exclusively) of barbershop choruses, but all groups in which section leaders play a significant role in the groups’ processes for learning music. The choruses have included all-male, all-female and mixed groups, ensembles of a range of achievement levels, and are based in several different countries. What they have in common are reports of a particular dynamic within one of their sections, whereby the section as a whole is perceived as fragile, despite having a very strong singer for their leader.

Thoughts on Legato

I have been re-reading Joszef Gat’s The Technique of Piano Playing, which I last read in its entirety age 20. I have dipped it into it maybe a couple of times since, but it’s safe to say there’s a lot in there that I had completely forgotten about. It is that curious mixture of, ‘Oh, that’s interesting and insightful,’ and, ‘Really? You’re kidding me!’ that you often get in the writings of practical musicians, and as such is a very rich reading experience.

Anyway, as you’d expect in a book on this subject, he talks about legato, which is a notorious challenge for pianists. In common with many writers, he holds up singing as the ideal model for this, contending that even string instruments can only achieve a partial legato. Whilst on the one hand (literally!) the bow offers continuity, on the other, the act of forming pitches by stopping strings means you are effectively playing a different string for every note, as each is a different length.

Getting into the detail with abcd

Analysis of one of the MD's four roles: the others are leader, musician, and teacherAnalysis of one of the MD's four roles: the others are leader, musician, and teacher

I spent Saturday up in Manchester leading a day course for the Association of British Choral Directors entitled, ‘Choral Conducting: A Beginner’s Guide’. As the title implies, the participants were mostly conductors in the early stages of their journey – all already good musicians, but with varying amounts of experience leading choirs, and little or no prior formal training in technique.

There is of course far more to choral conducting than you can cover in a day (opportunities here to plug the longer abcd Initial Course which does a great job of laying solid foundations for onward growth!), but you can get people up to the point where they can be confident they can get a group of singers safely into the music and out again, which is the heart of the job.

...found this helpful?

I provide this content free of charge, because I like to be helpful. If you have found it useful, you may wish to make a donation to the causes I support to say thank you.

Archive by date

Syndicate content Syndicate content