Choral

Remote Rehearsing: Some Specifics

So I thought I had probably gone on enough about this, until a chat with a friend, who said, amongst other things:

I don't want to burden you but I feel like if you were to post something quite directive with specifics on what functions to use on Zoom (which is surely what everyone is using) with some sample vocal activities that work with those, you would really be the hero of the moment and carry barbershop forward while there is serious floudering going on

It may be that there is only the one person in the world who wants more from me about this, but this is for her. Anyone else is welcome to share though :-)

On Surface Over-Compensating

When I was observing a lot of conductors as the heart of the research for my choral conducting book, I noticed how certain hand positions appear to correlate with certain types of relationship with the activity. In particular, I noted a kind of angular hand shape: wrists cocked back, fingers straight and folded forward at a right angle from the main knuckle, thumbs sticking up, and the ictus formed by a kind of scooping motion with the heel of the hand.

The choral sounds that this hand shape typically elicited were quite bright in tone, and reasonably well controlled, but often containing audible vocal tension and lacking bloom on the sound. The overall sound was often rather more contained and muted than you might have expected from the number of singers involved.

Remote Rehearsing: Initial Impressions

Screen-shot from our tea-breakScreen-shot from our tea-break

Well, the internet is fizzing with accounts of how people have been getting on with taking their rehearsals online, so I’m not sure this one is really needed. But I was going to write up my reflections anyway to inform our plans as they develop, so I thought I may was well do this thinking in public, in case anyone was curious about how we actually got on after my last post on the subject.

We used Zoom, and followed a plan sent out in advance with links for each segment of the rehearsal. The first and last segments were all together, with me leading and the chorus doing stuff with mics off – respectively a warm-up, using exercises we use regularly and can all do, and teaching a rhythm exercise for people to practise during the week. We had ten minutes offline midway for a comfort break and to make a cuppa, then 15 mins together with mics on for club business and social time.

Remote Rehearsing for a Time of Social Distancing

From this week, the Telfordaires are moving to remote working for our weekly club night. We made this decision, first, for the obvious public health reasons. Well, I say obvious, but apparently not so very obvious to the UK government, who seem happy to ignore WHO recommendations. But even if our decision is over-cautious, the second reason still remains. [Edit: a few hours after I published this, the UK advice got more sensible. I think it was modelers at Imperial College rather than this post they were responding to though...]

The position that many groups have proposed of, ‘We’ll go ahead but if you feel at risk, stay away, while we continue with the nice things,’ seems to me rather unkind to those already disadvantaged by circumstance. We wanted to find a way for us all to have the nice things, including those chorus members with specific risk factors and/or family members to protect.

The two main reasons I have seen for continuing choir rehearsals in the face of COVID19 are, first, because cancellation devastates the incomes of freelance choral leaders, and, second, because a choir is such an important social/emotional support for its members. Moving to remote working rather than cancelling addresses both of these, and the second in particular has significantly influenced my thinking about quite how to approach this. (Hat-tip at this point to Elizabeth Davies for telling me to read Daniel Coyle's The Culture Code some time back. I've been thinking a lot about it recently for a different project, and it has also proven very useful for this one.)

On Finding Your Audience

I was recently asked some interesting questions by a composer I’ve been helping, and it struck me that the answers might have wider applicability beyond his circumstances. He’s been re-working a song that he originally wrote for classroom use into a more developed and sophisticated arrangement for vocal ensemble and band, and our conversations have hitherto been about things like crafting form through texture, harmonic voicing, and vocal writing.

Now these technical questions are getting more fully under control, he’s turning his attention to the real-life question of what kind of groups might want to take it on to perform it. He has been advised that it could easily be marketed to schools if he pared it down to a unison setting – which he already knows of course because that’s where the song has already been road-tested. But his personal aims in returning to composing after some time away has been to be more ambitious than this, both technically and artistically.

How shall we deal with Spontaneous Gesture?*

My thoughts on researching gesture, in response to a question at the research day at Dublin City University in November, produced, during the process of writing them down, two more things that needed thinking about. Such is the process of writing. The point that the kind of spontaneous, intuitive gestures that are the most interesting bits of conducting are not, by definition, subject to self-aware control, presents two practical problems. Well, at least two; I may think of more as I write today!

First is the point that varying the physical form of conducting gestures clearly does make a difference to choral sound, and that investigating the nature of these differences is clearly a useful area for choral research. How, then, might one devise a method to focus on this?

Second, is the question for teaching conducting of the relationship between spontaneous gesture and habit. What comes intuitively may or may not be helpful to singers. I spend a good deal of my life teaching conductors in trying to help them adjust habitual motions (often involving multiple body parts and/or extraneous tension) that are getting in the way of either the musical clarity of the gestures or the singers’ vocal production. The reason it is so hard to make these changes is that they are part and parcel of the conductors’ established modes of musical thought.

On Researching Gesture

Now all the events I had big writing projects for in autumn 2019 are over, it’s time to start processing the mountains of notes I took at them. Expect to see me referring back to theHands-On Choral Symposium in Aveiro and the Choral Research Day at Dublin City University every so often for the next few months. Both were both very friendly and very stimulating events, at which I was made to feel most welcome. It feels like I met more people who have read my choral conducting book during November 2019 than I had in the previous ten years!

Anyway, the first thing I wanted to blog about was to revisit a question I was asked during the round-table discussion in Dublin, and which I felt I didn’t handle terribly well. By the time my flight home was halfway across the Irish Sea I had mustered my thoughts into much better shape.

On Musical and Didactic Gestures

This is one of those posts that I was going to send someone a link to in order to explain an idea, then discovered I’d not written yet. It’s a concept I’ve referred to in passing over the years, but I guess the reason I’ve not blogged about it is because I developed the idea in some detail in my choral conducting book, which I finished writing a few months before starting this blog.

So, you could always buy my book and turn to page 130. I’ve just re-read that bit and it’s quite good, and includes some references to specific examples in the video footage that accompanies the book. But for those who need to know right now and can’t wait for the book to arrive…

The distinction between musical and didactic gestures derives from observations of conductors in action; it is one that appears in the gestural language across choral genres. The musical gesture is the expressive holistic embodiment of musical flow, the mode where the conductor ‘looks like the music itself’. Musical gestures are the source of nuance and characterisation in the choral performance.

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