ABCD Conductors Day, Mark II
Saturday saw the second of the days run by the Association of British Choral Directors Midlands region as replacement for the event snowed off in January. It was the first genuinely spring-like Saturday we have seen this year, and so in many ways it was a pity to spend it indoors, but at least it was good weather for travelling to and from.
For we had lots of delegates from outside the region - directors came down from Sheffield and up from Bristol and Surrey to participate, as well as from round the region itself. As a result we had a cohort of eleven delegates for the conducting stream, which is more or less perfect in size - enough people to get a genuine range of perspectives and experience, while few enough that everyone who wanted to could get some individual feedback on their own conducting.
After the February event, I had been in two minds as to whether to repeat in April the practical exercise we had used then of directing silently or whether to revert to the more standard model of forming a delegate choir to direct. By the time we got to Saturday, the decision had made itself, and we repeated February's approach for that session.
The reasons behind this were not only the musical benefits I wrote about previously, but also the quality of the observation and feedback it allows. A scratch choir clearly has the advantage of giving immediately audible feedback on your conducting, but it is not very nuanced. You learn how a group of people who are sight-reading while trying to keep an eye on you respond. They in turn have so much of their attention absorbed with making the music happen at all, they don't learn a great deal from watching you.
When you direct the choir that sounds in your head, the other delegates get the chance to watch you in great detail. They observe which gestures and facial expressions they find supportive, and which they find distracting. They have the space to analyse and reflect upon what they see, and to enter imaginatively into your world.
This means they can give very specific and detailed feedback on what they see. So each individual gets some really nuanced ideas of what their strengths are, and what they can usefully change to improve their technique. But a more important part of the learning experience is participating in the analysis that leads to that feedback. It is useful to be told your gestures are somewhat over-extended, but it is more useful to observe the effects of such over-extension in other directors.
I do love working with choral conductors. These are people who spend so much of their lives supporting the singers they work with, and so when you put them in a room together, they are great at supporting each other. They know how to give feedback that is both encouraging and helps make changes, and they know how to balance leading and following while working in a group. All the ensemble skills of human interaction that can need managing while facilitating workshops are both well-honed and consciously valued.