ABCD Midlands Conducting Day
If over the winter you had spotted the trailer for a Conductors' Day organised by the Association of British Choral Directors in January, you may have wondered why January came and went without my mentioning it and how it went. It was scheduled for January 19th, but if you live in the UK you may remember that the day before was the day we all woke up to several inches of snow.
It is one of our national sports to criticise ourselves roundly about how everyone just stops when we see a snowflake. But on the other hand, people were booked to come from quite a wide radius, and the chances of everyone making it there on time without difficulty were sufficiently slim to make it worth rescheduling. We ended up with two replacement dates for both the conducting and Sing Up streams, 16th Feb and 20th April, to try and accommodate as many delegates as possible.
So, Saturday was our first session, and whilst Liz Stafford's Sing Up stream was reasonably well-populated, we had only three of the conductors. From a perspective of variety of inputs and sharing experience, it would have been good to have had more (one of the great values of these days is after all the opportunity to interact with your peers), but the very small group offered a commensurately intensive and detailed level of individual attention to compensate.
And I must extend my thanks to the delegates for being such an engaging and cooperative group. By the end of the day I was quite won over by the idea of working with a very small cohort - it felt like we had really been able to get into the heart of the areas we worked on together.
The session that needed the most significant adaptation to the change in numbers was the afternoon practical session. The original plan had been for delegates to form a choir for each other to conduct. This works well with a group of 10-12, but was clearly going to be silly with only three.
Instead, we used a model more common in training orchestral musicians. If you think about it, the casual and routine formation of conducting classes into choirs is something that is not nearly so readily available for those learning to conduct orchestras. Whilst I would quite happily, say, sketch in a tenor line to balance the texture, you can't really expect an oboist to switch to cello in the same way. Quite apart from the skill differences, you need so much more equipment.
So orchestral conductors will quite often have lessons in which they have to conduct a sound that exists only in their own heads. They have to conjure up the full musical texture in their inner ear, and conduct that. It may sound like a poor second best when you first encounter it, but once you try it, you discover it creates all kinds of learning opportunities that are distinct and valuable in their own right.
Because what conducting your inner musical landscape does is force you to work much much harder to generate your concept of the music. It is perfectly possible, when faced with a real choir, to spend at least some of your time 'conducting along' with them - using the sonic cues they give you to keep yourself on track as much as they are using the visual cues you give them.
This will succeed at the level of keeping everyone coordinated (aka the 'sheepdog' function of conducting), but is likely to invite a level of engagement from the singers in which they are likewise 'singing along' with their memory of how things go, rather than actively making music.
When a conductor has no audible cues to steer by, their inner ears need to work much more continuously and deeply, and the resultant gestures and facial expressions are commensurately more vivid.
They are also more believable. If you are focusing on conscious elements of technique (I need to make a bigger gesture here for emphasis, I need to make eye contact here for this entry), what the observer is likely to notice is the gesture or glance, rather than the musical intention. The 'meta' thought - the internal commentary upon what needs to be done - can all too easily detach gesture from musical meaning.
But if a significant chunk of your attention is occupied with maintaining the musical thread, you have no option but to integrate such meta-thoughts into the musical flow - because if you interrupt your musical thinking to focus on a gesture, the music actually stops.
So this practical session ended up being extraordinarily productive. Every participant was able to have an extended experience of this challenging level of musical engagement leading to feedback and discussion of their technique. And the act of close observation without the distraction of having to sing at the same time also gave some rich and detailed learning opportunities.
I find, indeed, that I am in two minds as to whether to use this exercise again in April anyway, even though we will have enough delegates to form a choir! Actually, that decision will probably emerge in the context of the delegates we have that day and their needs - it doesn't have to be an either/or decision for the whole session.
And I should also point out, that, having split the original group over two days, there now will be space for a few more. If you would like to come along, you can find the booking form here.