Rehearsing Remotely in Granite City

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GCCmay21I spent Tuesday evening with my friends up at Granite City Chorus, as guest director for an evening’s rehearsal. Their MD Peter is currently on paternity leave, so they got this date with me in the diary some months ago so the Music Team who are running the rest of their rehearsals could look forward to having a break and the chance to be chorus members rather than leaders. Peter did pop in for a few minutes, but I didn’t get a screen-shot until after he had gone, so you’ll have to take my word for it that his baby looks adorable.

One of the things I reflected on afterwards was how in some ways it is an easier task to deputise for a rehearsal in an online mode compared to working in-person. Well, to start with, I wouldn’t pop up top Aberdeen for 90 mins from Birmingham in the normal run of things!

But it highlighted the way that as choral directors online we function much more as teachers and coaches than as conductors. We plan musical activities for others to do, we lead activities for singers to participate in, with a combination of demonstration and gesture, and we offer information about music and voice that we hope will prove useful to chorus members. Sometimes we even have the opportunity to give direct feedback to singers on how they are doing, either in one-to-one coaching while another activity goes on in breakout rooms, or in protocols such as duetting-coaching. (We didn’t do either of these on this visit, though we had done the latter when I visited for their retreat a couple of months ago.)

What we don’t have is that immediate connection with the flow of the music through gesture. Any conducting we do is entirely one-way signalling, informed by our sense of what should happen, but entirely uninformed by what the singers are doing in response. This is of course why it was such a wrench taking rehearsals online, as that central musical connection through which we develop our relationship with the ensemble has disappeared entirely. As conductors we’re flying blind.

This, conversely, is why it is rather easier to come in to dep for a week in these circumstances. Whilst conducting gestures are to a considerable extent conventional, understood by singers and conductors from different groups, especially within a particular genre, they are also personal. A group will be accustomed to the shape and feel of their regular director’s gestures, not least because those gestures develop over time in the context of the relationship with the ensemble.

A different director will, by definition, look different to the singers. It may not be quite so immediately and intuitively obvious to them what certain gestures mean compared to what they are used to. The gestures themselves may take time to come into focus as immediately and intuitively connected to the sound, as the guest director’s ears find their way into the sound and discovers the feel of the voices and needs of the singers.

This process is of course ever so good for both singers and director. Learning to look afresh, learning to listen afresh, you discover things about both the music and yourself as a musician that would have remained hidden within the familiar. But still, the more effective the bond between conductor and ensemble, the more a substitution is experienced as something of a shock to the system.

Depping for an online rehearsal felt much more like the role of visiting coach. You bring activities and ideas that will be relevant to the group, but maybe not familiar. The point of the activities is for the singers to learn useful things that they’ll continue to apply once you’ve gone away again.

The conductor’s role, by contrast, is to be part of the performance, both in their concept of the music and their understanding of the ensemble. So when you step into that place for an evening, you are inserting yourself into an ongoing relationship, then removing yourself again at the end. It’s like going on a date with someone else when you’ve been going steady for a year.

Hmm, I wasn’t expecting that metaphor. Next time I’m asked to dep for an in-person rehearsal I mustn’t let it distract me!

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