Developing the Director-Chorus Bond with Avon Harmony
Last Saturday took me down to work with Avon Harmony in Bristol. I last worked with them back in 2012 when their director, Alex, was relatively new in the role. You could see how much he had worked on his technique in the intervening time, and how he was being rewarded with a much more consistent and resonant sound. We spent much of the day mapping out where the next stages of development are going to lie.
First up, though, was one basic bit of conductorly bad habit that we needed to deal with. Like many directors, Alex was frequently tempted into mouthing the words. I have tried various methods to help directors break this habit over the years, often involving holding things in their mouths. Straws are good, as blowing into a straw is good for the vocal mechanism, so gives a positive benefit in how the director models their bodily set-up as well as inhibiting the habit you’re trying to eliminate.
Having not brought anything with me for this purpose on this occasion, though, I was forced to be imaginative, and came up with what proved to be a very effective practice tactic. I told the chorus that if they saw him mouthing the words, they should stop singing. They only had to do it once and he was cured. I’ve told them to use it if they see a relapse - but only in rehearsal, not performance...
Given that directors often defend this habit on the basis that their singers ‘need’ it, I’d like to report that the feedback from the chorus was that it was easier to sing when Alex stopped. And that when he did want to use his mouth to model a vowel or somesuch, they actually noticed that he was doing it.
Another very useful exercise for conducting technique emerged from what started out as work on continuity of sound and phrase-end support with the singers. We first got the stream of sound activated using singerly techniques like bubbling and singing without consonants. When we put the words back in, I asked Alex to direct nothing but the breath-points.
The idea was to focus everyone’s attention on the starts of the silences: how the note developed up to it, for how long and with what expressive qualities. Indeed, we had a bit of a penny-drop moment about singing rests - how if you allow your sound to fade out early, you can’t tell when the silence is supposed to start. Supporting phrase ends is how you create the rhythmic impact of your rests.
But this process also gave a great opportunity to observe and refine how Alex was directing the breath-points. This involved taking out various extraneous motions. He has (largely) restrained the instinct to use the whole body (torso+knees) in conducting gestures, but there was a residual bounce on the toes that needed taming.
Once he was keeping his heels on the ground, we identified that he didn’t need to mime the breath at the singers - he could trust them to breathe for themselves. And when he did so, they breathed more deeply and freely. We then removed shoulder and upper-arm engagement, and with it removed some vocal tension.
Each superfluous movement we erased from the gesture gave Alex greater precision and greater control, as well as more space to listen to the detail. We were still sometimes having to go back to the singers to reinforce elements we had worked on with them, but increasingly, I could make the changes by directing Alex’s attention: listen to the baritones in that chord; stay interested in that long note.
By the final song we worked on during the day, people were starting to get tired and I wasn’t expecting to spend the last 20 minutes effectively playing with a new toy. But the simplest way to address the questions of phrasing, shaping and pacing the song posed was to explore the expressive potential of traditional conducting patterns.
In one way, this toy was not new - Alex is fluent in the standard beat patterns, and uses them probably more than many barbershop directors. Indeed, it was this very fluency that allowed us to unlock their potential - he didn’t have to fill his brain up with remembering which direction the next beat should travel.
But I don’t think he had really connected the directional structure of metre with its expressive implications before. This is a deeply satisfying place to work for me - it comes out of the intensely theoretical work I did in writing Part III of my conducting book, but is at the same directly practical. And it is a great way to unlock so much musical content: harmonies suddenly come alive, melodies take on shape and flow, you get a flexible and immediate control over rubato. The pattern stops being a straitjacket that boxes the music in and chops it up, and starts being a tool for the creative exploration of musical shape.
It was a pleasing way to finish the day in all kinds of ways. After the intensity of detailed coaching work on small chunks of music, everyone was ready to engage with longer spans of musical time. Having a new toy to play with, though, meant that the longer passages were sung with genuine engagement, not just slipping back into autopilot. And, having spent the day removing things from Alex’s gestural to-do list, it was fun to have something to give him and say, ‘Here, use this instead’.