More Director Coaching with Welwyn Harmony

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All warm-ups should have a big mirror to help you get more people in the picAll warm-ups should have a big mirror to help you get more people in the pic

On Tuesday I was back with my friends in Welwyn to continue supporting their director development plan. This time I spent a good chunk of the evening working with each of their two Assistant MDs as well as doing some more work on their contest ballad with their front-line director. I do like teaching models that give people the chance to both do the thing and observe others doing it; the combination of direct experience and having the space to observe the effects of changes seems to help people acquire skills more efficiently than either in isolation.

Some of our work was refining technique: stabilising stance to make less of a moving target, connecting gesture level to the seat of the breath (or the ‘yo-ho-ho’ region to refer back to a pirate-themed warm-up exercise). Becoming more purposeful about the role of the non-dominant hand was a useful development for both AMDs: by giving it less to do as default, and only using it (either as momentary mirror to the dominant hand or to do something different) when you have a particular musical reason drastically increases your expressive range. As I say about writing: some days you measure progress in how much you write, some days in how much you delete.

We had some interesting conversations about aspects of technique that can seem counter-intuitive on first meeting. For instance, how a vocal line that goes high is best supported by a gesture that goes low, whereas one of the few times you might want to bring your gesture level up nearer your face is to facilitate placement of a passage in a low tessitura. We demonstrated with everyone singing and gesturing together how a low gesture makes singing a high note easier, and were rewarded with the same ease of tone when that translated into conducting gesture.

I wrote last year about the idea of keeping a stable centre of gravity within the totality of the conducting gesture. This notion of counter-balancing pitch with gesture takes that idea of balance and shares it out between the various participants in the ensemble; between voices and gestures we maintain a balance.

It also mediates it via metaphor – what we call ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pitches aren’t actually higher and lower in the sense of spatial positioning relative to gravity that the arms and hands occupy. But because our culture interprets relatively faster or slower vibrations in the air (aka ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ frequencies) in those terms, the gestural and the vocal make a meaningful gestalt.

And the thing that you really get to appreciate when working with conductors with the ensembles they regularly direct is that sense of gestalt, of the singers and conductor forming a collaborative unit. If you think about the conductor in terms of someone who sends out signals to be followed (as the Zoom era reduced us to), you build in a conceptual separation that makes the task both more difficult and more lonely.

But the core thing that makes the whole enterprise possible is the fact that everyone there is intent on the same musical task and working to make it happen together. (I have recommended Dag Jansson’s book Leading Musically on this before, and it’s worth a reminder; he’s very perceptive, and very humane in how he analyses the process.) For a less-experienced director who fears letting her singers down, the recognition that it’s a team sport, and that the basic substrate of trust and musical purpose is what binds the whole together can be very comforting. Once you’ve got that, you’ve got the heart of music- making; everything else is refinement to find more beauty and joy together.

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