Conductors in Cornwall

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Delegates and singersDelegates and singers

I spent yesterday down in Saltash, near Plymouth, running a workshop for choral directors from the area. It was organised and hosted by Brunel Harmony, who also provided singers for the directors to be coached working with, and involved 19 current, assistants and aspiring directors from 10 local choirs and choruses, with levels of experience ranging from decades in the job to complete novices.

It can be quite difficult for people living in the country’s peripheries to get up to training events, which are - not surprisingly - usually held in more central regions. So it makes a lot of sense to import workshops instead of travelling out to them, not just logistically and economically, but also in terms of the opportunities for networking. However exciting it is to meet conductors from across the country, it is more useful, on a day-to-day basis, to get to know your neighbours.

We spent the first hour setting our agendas for the day, identifying what the directors wanted to get from it, and what their choirs most need at their current stages of development. I always find these kinds of discussions wonderful for bonding, as directors see how the intractable issues they may struggle with are common to us all, whether that is over-directing, how to make the warm-up interesting, or supporting the choir’s self-belief.

The main agenda I wanted to set for the day was to establish the keystone first principles of choral directing:

  1. The central purpose of the conductor is to enable the choir to sing well
  2. You can tell how you are doing as a conductor by how the choir sounds

Having the luxury of a willing ‘guinea pig’ chorus for the whole day not only meant that we could offer hands-on coaching to 10 different directors, it also meant that all delegates got an extended opportunity to listen in depth as they watched each other. When you are being coached yourself, you are sometimes concentrating so hard on making changes to your technique that you don’t always have the spare capacity to also hear the difference you are making. Having the opportunity to see other people making similar changes allows you the space to listen and start triangulating between gesture and sound.

One theme that emerged several times was of directors leaning or hunching in to their directing space rather than letting the sound come to them. We worked on this in part by developing a more explicit awareness of the three-dimensional area in which the conductor shapes the sound, and how if you intrude your upper body into it, you give the singers less space to make music.

We also found ourselves with a new metaphor, invented in the heat of our explorations: imagine the front of your shoulders are fitted with musical solar panels. If you lean or hunch over, these get cast into the shade, and can’t absorb music from the singers so effectively, so you need to keep them open and receptive. This was a really useful concept, as it integrated the directors’ posture with their awareness of the sound they evoked into a single image. It will be one to use again.

Another useful theme to address was the issue of ‘auto-pilot’: when were the singers doing what they were going to do anyway, and when were they really responding to the director? As a director, you can feel when it is one or the other - but how do you get the singers off autopilot and into a responsive place?

The answer lay in the location of the director’s attention. If they were thinking about what they wanted to ‘do’ - for example, produce a swell or a diminuendo - they may or may not get a response. And that response would be one of obedience, of the singers making a conscious change that they had observed a request for, rather than an intuitive response to the gesture, with the voices connected to the hands.

When the directors had a specific listening assignment (such as attending to a particular vowel, or making sure a particular chord was balanced, or listening for the integrity of the tonal centre), they achieved a much more immediate and vital rapport with the singers. They lost that self-consciousness that comes with paying attention to their own hand movements, and started to respond subtly and in real time to the sound, producing similar precision of response from the singers.

The point here is twofold. First, whilst you can make generalisations about best practice in technique on the broad scale, once you get into the detail of the sound, the adjustments directors need to make are far too delicate to give (or indeed to follow) as verbal instructions. To make such fine changes to someone’s motor control, they need to steer by the results their efforts are producing, in the same way you can’t balance on a bicycle by looking down at the wheels, but need to look up to where you’re heading.

Second, you need to move away from the model of conducting as a form of signalling, to one of interaction. The director and choir are like an ecosystem, each part of which affects the other. You get a responsive ensemble by being a responsive director.

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