Basic Conducting Skills with abcd

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Our venue for the day: Polish Millenium HouseOur venue for the day: Polish Millenium HouseI spent Saturday in central Birmingham leading a one-day course in basic conducting skills for the Association of British Choral Directors. We had participants representing a wonderful range of choral backgrounds – school choirs, church choirs, barbershop choruses, community choirs of various flavours, musical theatre, chamber choirs, a composer wanting to direct her own work. I had worried a little about meeting everyone’s needs, but in fact the breadth was very useful as it meant that nobody felt like the odd one out in terms of background or activity.

One of the things I particularly enjoy about teaching for the abcd is the way our courses are resolutely practical. Yes, there are topics that need discussion – repertoire choice, rehearsal planning, leadership and people skills – but the hand skills that are both central to and unique to conducting remain at the heart of what we do. Every participant has the opportunity to be coached as they lead the rest of the group in song, and everyone subsequently has the opportunity to review video footage of all the coaching sessions to aid their reflection and onward development.

In one day you can’t hope to teach pattern to any useful effect – that’s what the extended courses are for – but you can work on ictus, and this is useful for both those who already know their patterns and those who have not yet encountered them. The conducting literature has a variety of theoretical frameworks to consider the quality of the pulse point that marks musical events, articulation terms and Laban effort shapes being two of the most common.

For our purposes, we found it useful to make the distinction between ‘boing’ and ‘bonk’. The former is more voice-friendly, with a rebound that encourages legato singing, the latter produces a heavier, lumpier sound and is more tiring for the conductor. If you can do both, you can choose the more artistic one at will.

A theme that emerged several times during the day was that of trust. The conductor needs to trust their hand to give the signal to sing, they don’t have to add in their head and their knees to make the point. (And of course, when they do trust their hand to do it without all the extraneous movement, everyone can see the hand much more clearly.)

The conductor also needs to trust the choir to sing. They will, that’s what they’re there for. You don’t have to give lots of explanation about what’s going to happen, you can launch straight in and do it. You also don’t need to make your gestures big and emphatic – the gestural equivalent of shouting – to make them more believable. When we trust the singers with moderated gestures, they reciprocate with greater trust in our direction.

I’d like also to share an insight from one of our participants, Helen Clayton, who remarked that you can use the end effect – that sudden surge of higher quality attention towards the back end of the rehearsal – to sow seeds. She talked of choosing what you wanted to send people out into the car park singing, what you wanted to have still running round their heads at 3 the next morning. It is after all the goal of rehearsal to appropriate as much of everyone’s brains as possible for musical purposes for the whole of the next week.

It occurred to me that we could also use this insight of hers to sow seeds for subsequent rehearsals. How can we use that window of attentional lift-off to launch our singers on a musical trajectory that will come to fruition the following week?

That’s the other thing I love about teaching these courses. Fill a room with dedicated and intelligent people with a strong interest in common, and you are guaranteed to come home enriched by the creative products of their interaction.

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