Conducting Anacruses

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I recently received an email from a conductor I worked with earlier in the year with two really good questions. They thing I liked about them was that they were at one level nitty-gritty practical questions about the detail of what you do with your choir, and at another opened out into general principles with a much wider applicability than the specific technical instance he was asking about. Perfect blog-post material.

Here’s one of them:

Bringing in a less able group on an up beat has been problematic. Would you advise sticking to the proper method, and educating them, or take the line of least resistance and give them a down beat "for nothing"?

See what I mean? I’ll start with talking through the step-by-step process I’d use in this situation, then explain some of the thinking behind it, and then finish with some thoughts on the ‘line of least resistance’ dynamic, which pops up in so many different circumstances.

So, the overall goal is to wean the choir off needing a full bar for nothing, so they can come in confidently having been given just the beat before their entry.

  1. Demonstrate the entry from the downbeat, talking through with the gesture: ‘one-two-breathe-sing’. Do actually sing the entry (don’t just say ‘sing’!), and go a bar or two into the phrase so that the entry comes with some musical context to make sense of it.
  2. Have the choir copy the count-in and start to your gesture.
  3. Demonstrate the same thing, but without saying ‘one-two-breathe’ out loud - just do the gesture, breathe and sing in the right place
  4. Have the choir copy back to your gesture
  5. Once that is secure, explain that you’re now going to miss out the first two ‘blank’ beats as nothing happens there
  6. Demonstrate the gesture, saying ‘breathe’ on the prep beat and singing the entry on the anacrusis
  7. Have the choir copy saying ‘breathe’ to your gesture and coming in on the entry
  8. Demonstrate without saying ‘breathe’ outloud
  9. Have the choir copy
  10. Do it a couple or three more times for practice

It will take a lot less time to do all that than it takes to write and read it. Only one step takes much verbal explanation (and that not much), the rest can go along on a monkey-see, monkey-do basis. Depending on the group, another option is to have them join in with the conducting gesture with you at some or all stages.

Expect to need to go through this process on several successive rehearsals of a piece, though as people gradually get the hang of it you’ll be able to abbreviate it to omit the spoken count-in phases. Also expect to need to revisit it when meeting different pieces that start on an anacrusis - it will take time before people transfer the skill from one piece to the next without additional support.

The thinking behind the process is that it isn’t always clear in these circumstances where the understanding gap lies. Is that the singers don’t understand at a theoretical level how metre works, or is that they know how to count beats, but haven’t got that analytical knowledge connected intuitively to what they’re seeing from the conductor? Walking through all the stages systematically, starting with a combination of theory + doing towards just the doing gives a structure to integrate declarative knowledge with felt rhythm.

It also builds in structured conducting practice time for the director. The process not only helps educate the singers in how to read what you’re doing, it also gives you the opportunity to refine and clarify your gestures in the light of how your singers respond. And once you've used it a couple of times, you've built a shared working method for the ensemble to apply together to solve a particular musical problem.

So the answer to the question of ‘do I do it correctly, or do I pander to my singers’ current inadequacies’ turns out to be: start with what they can currently manage, and build a bridge to what you’d like them to be able to do. This is the point that comes up in so many different circumstances.

It is in these small skill gaps that choirs always want to train their conductor into compensating for what they can’t do. It is a perfectly normal response and not one to complain about, but equally, if we do take the line of least resistance, we limit the choir’s skills. Obviously, we have to pick which skills we want to work on at any one time - you can’t do everything at once - but these small, specific issues that come up across a range of repertoire are really worth investing a bit of time and care into mastering, as once the choir has grasped them, they’ll use them again and again.

The two mistakes that conductors typically make are either to accept the limitation (‘no, we’ll go back to the start, my choir can’t start in the middle’), or evince impatience that the limitation is there (‘well they jolly well ought to be able to stay on pitch’). Never mind ‘should’, if the choir can’t do it, that’s the situation you face. But ‘can’t’ always means ‘can’t yet’ - it is our job to help the choir improve.

Of course, choirs sometimes need persuading to engage with a new skill. People get anxious when asked to work on something they can’t yet do, which is why it is so important to break it down into manageable increments starting from what they can do. It’s also important for everyone to have permission to be imperfect while working on it. New skills take time and familiarity to become fluent, and you have to spend a fair while being not very good at it yet before you get to be expert. But people are also generally willing to agree that it’s the things you can nearly but not quite do that are the most productive to work on.

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