Beating Time in Bray

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beatingtimeThursday was the start of a short tour coaching women’s barbershop in Ireland. The first weekend of October has traditionally been the date for the Irish Association of Barbershop Singers’ annual convention, but this year was the first of a new pattern of holding it every two years to allow more space for other activities.

As it happens, there has been enough clamouring from the foreign visitors who flock to the Irish Convention each year about how much they’ll miss the event that the pattern may yet revert back to yearly. But in the meantime, these other activities have for some ensembles involved extra coaching sessions.

My first stop was Beating Time chorus in Bray, co. Wicklow. My remit here was twofold: to work with a new song the chorus are in the process of developing and to work the director and her deputies on conducting skills.

A theme with all three directors was finding ways to move into higher gears, to get more response for less movement. The gearing metaphor is quite a useful one as it acknowledges that there are times when extravagant gestures are appropriate. When the director is first connecting with a chorus, for instance, or when the singers seem in need of a bit of a kick-start. But when you’re driving or cycling, you aim to get out of first gear as quickly as possible – doing a whole journey in a low gear is both slower and more wearing than optimising your gear to the terrain.

If you try and address this just by damping down gesture, the risk is that you also limit expressiveness. An over-active director (which description pretty much covers all of us at some point when we make more and/or bigger gestures than would effect our aims) is typically also a communicative director. The music lives convincingly in their faces and bodies; it is just broadcast more ‘loudly’ gesturally than is needed, resulting in a degree of distortion in the response.

The goal is for the music to be just as loud in the director’s head, but for it to become more focused in their body. Techniques we used for this included exercises I have written about before such as standing on one leg (to ensure balance in the posture) and directing with the eyes closed (to shift the attention from signalling to listening).

Another technique that emerged from the process was the use of the musicotopographic gesture as a directing tool. A logicotopographic gesture is a spontaneous gesture that a speaker will use to help them articulate the shape of their thought. The musical version is analogous, but relates to musical rather than verbal ideas. The key thing about it, though, is that its role is as part of the thinker’s thought process rather than as a signal to someone else.

The specific context we used this for was to keep a rhythmic flavour alive and cooking without it obtruding over everything else in the musical texture. We put the back-beat pulse into one hand of the director, low and near the body, with its purpose being for her. The other hand remained available for shaping other aspects of the music, though, not surprisingly, it was used a lot more sparingly now it was forced to operate independently.

But the key difference the technique made was that the gestures were now much more about the music, and much less about instructing the singers. They became musical rather than didactic, and as a result, the singers could see much more clearly the musical ideas resonating inside the director’s mind.

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