Getting into the detail with abcd

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Analysis of one of the MD's four roles: the others are leader, musician, and teacherAnalysis of one of the MD's four roles: the others are leader, musician, and teacher

I spent Saturday up in Manchester leading a day course for the Association of British Choral Directors entitled, ‘Choral Conducting: A Beginner’s Guide’. As the title implies, the participants were mostly conductors in the early stages of their journey – all already good musicians, but with varying amounts of experience leading choirs, and little or no prior formal training in technique.

There is of course far more to choral conducting than you can cover in a day (opportunities here to plug the longer abcd Initial Course which does a great job of laying solid foundations for onward growth!), but you can get people up to the point where they can be confident they can get a group of singers safely into the music and out again, which is the heart of the job.

So, whilst we spent some time on discussion and theory type areas (how to build a warm-up, analysing the director’s role, rehearsal technique), the bulk of our focus was on the doing, since the actual physical act of conducting is the thing that turns you from a clued-up musician with relevant life experience into a musical director.

The primary unit of all conducting is of course the ictus - the moment that marks musical event and which is articulated by a change in direction. All beat patterns are built out of icti, as are cues and cut-offs. Get a nice, secure ictus going and you’re set up both to start leading the singing right away, and to go on to learn all the more developed elements of conducting technique.

And I don’t know why it is, but I find it deeply satisfying to spend a large chunk of a day analysing the detail of other people’s icti and helping them refine them to become clearer and more voice-friendly. The big challenge for leading singing is doing both at once. Clarity by itself is easy, but you risk a stiff or bumpy gesture that disrupts the vocal line (what William Ehmann refers to as ‘beating the music to pieces’). Smoothness and flow are also relatively easy, but you risk losing the precision of the ictus leading to difficulties with synchronisation. There is a sweet spot where the gestures are flexible without being floppy, and clear without being clicky, and finding that sweet spot can involve close analysis and adjustments of which joints are involved and by how much.

Metaphors are our friends in this process, as it is easier to grasp a holistic concept than control several different body parts in unfamiliar ways at once. The idea that your arms attached to your body at the small of the back rather than the shoulders is a useful one I learned from my Alexander Technique teacher years ago. Yo-yos also provide a good image, as they have that sense of being continuously connected, with the need to be positive, but without any jerks.

A new image emerged from the needs of the moment on Saturday when one participant was finding it hard to combine the ictus with the curl around that signals release of sound. Tapping a key on a computer keyboard was the ideal image: you need to tap and let go (or else thissssssssss happensssssssssss) and it doesn’t need a lot of force, just precision. (Flashback to my mother’s cruel treatment of computer keyboards – she learned to type on a stiff old manual typewriter and never adjusted the lightness of touch a laptop needs. This would not have been a good metaphor for her!)

One of the things I love about the abcd training philosophy is that we’re not trying to turn everyone into a single ideal of a choral conductor, but helping them become their best selves. In this context, we had a conversation about certain idiosyncratic variants of the ictus that participants had picked up from other conductors they had sung with. On the one hand I was mindful of not wanting to stifle people’s individuality with orthodoxy, but on the other, well-established techniques are classic for a reason.

We found our way through this dilemma with the thought that if you learn best practice, you can choose to vary it when the musical context suggests it. But if all you can do is the idiosyncratic variants, you don’t have that choice, you just have habits. The standard technique will feel odd at first, because it is unfamiliar, but if you practice it and develop some fluency you give yourself a wider range of artistic options.

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