Conducting, and Teaching Conducting, Online

The new multiple highlight function is great, but only if everyone has the newest version of the appThe new multiple highlight function is great, but only if everyone has the newest version of the app

On Saturday afternoon I spent an hour teaching a session on Basic Directing Skills as part of the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers’ eOnline programme. (As an aside, it’s a fab programme – really varied classes, and there have been a couple or three a week all summer.)

This is a set of skills I have taught many times over the years, but never previously in a situation in which you can’t use sound as part of the learning process. Which is rather the point of directing, isn’t it? The process at the heart of both teaching conducting and the act of conducting itself is to listen to what you’re getting back and adjust your own posture, gesture, and facial expressions to make it sound better.

Warming-up the Conductor-Choir Bond

It feels strange writing about the intimate real-time contact between conductor gesture and choral sounds at a time when I have been unable to experience it for three months and will likely have to wait many more before I can experience it again. But there are some interesting notes sitting in my thinking book from earlier in the year and now is as good a time as any to reflect on them.

Sometimes when I’m visiting a chorus to coach, the director might ask me to take the warm-up. I’ll always oblige because I too enjoy watching other people lead warm-ups, seeing what they do and how they do them. Part of what they’re paying for when getting an outsider in is approaches they may not have thought of (the other part of course being validation of good things they do already).

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.

Thoughts on Performance and Skill-Development

Over the autumn and winter I found myself teaching two courses designed to bring relative novices up to a decent foundational level of skill. One was the Initial conducting course for the Association of British Choral Directors that took place on four Saturdays in Newcastle between October and February. The other was the Learn to Sing in Harmony course hosted by the Telfordaires for 90 minutes each week on our first six rehearsals of the new year.

I found myself having the same conversation with more than one person on each of these courses, where they would remark that they had practised at home and were confident they could do a particular musical task, but when came to the next session it suddenly became much harder. In the former case, it was about how the beat patterns for 2, 3 and 4 seem simple until you add other things them like cueing, or indeed listening to the singers you are leading at the same time. In the latter, it was about how you can sing your part perfectly well by yourself, but it becomes a lot harder when you add the other three parts into the mix.

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.

Abcd Research Developments, Part 2

Having contemplated some broad themes in my previous post about the research strand at the recent abcd Choral Leaders Festival, I’d like to pick out a few interesting cross-references between the papers. There were four speakers reporting on projects undertaken for advanced degrees in the strand sessions, plus the plenary keynote presented by Dr Katie Overy, all of which addressed topics that would make choral practitioners say, ‘Ooh yes, we want to know about that!’

But it’s in the resonances between them that you really feel the value of a event like this, rather than just reading their findings as published articles. Not that I object to reading articles, you understand. The published format offers other strengths – the opportunity for the author to cover more detail, and for the reader to take time to think about things en route. But it doesn’t offer the same kind of creative opportunities as a live event, where the ways in which the papers bounce off each other spark insights beyond what they each offer individually.

So, here are the things that I came away wanting to think about further:

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