Concentrating in Coventry

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I spent Wednesday evening in Coventry with the Belles of Three Spires, working both with the chorus and with their directors. Well, that's always the case of course, but our focus was sometimes on changing what the singers did to improve the performance, and sometimes on the person out front.

Read almost any book on conducting, and you will find some comment about how the director's communication and expressiveness comes not only from their conducting gestures, but from their whole demeanour: their face, their stance, their way of being in the world. (That includes my book, I should add.)

Now, both Belles director Lucy and her assistant Lindsey are expressive musicians who clearly have a full-body experience of music. So I didn't need to tell them this. Actually, what we found ourselves doing was concentrating the musical attention more closely into the gestures.

We started with Lindsey, who was directing a song that had repeated pick-ups for the bass independent of the other parts. She was directing these with her left hand, and then bringing in the other parts with her right hand to join them. This had a structural logic to it, but was visually quite complex.

I suggested she try directing with only the right hand as an exercise, and several interesting things happened. First, the singers said they found it easier to follow. Second, the sound became more integrated - there was a better unity of tone between the bass section and the upper parts. Third, Linday's tendency to mouth the words calmed down considerably - she still did sometimes, but not so overtly and no longer continuously.

This last one was another detail of technique I had on my list to deal with, and it was most interesting to see how it fixed itself as part of a bigger process. We all know that stopping mouthing the words if you are in the habit of it can be really difficult, and this experience suggests that this is because it isn't an isolated element of technique, but is integrated with all kinds of other aspects of how a director experiences the music.

It was interesting to note that later on in the evening, she briefly reverted to mouthing the words again, and the effect on the sound was that the lead line came through strongly, but the harmony parts lost some of their clarity. When reminded of what she had done earlier, she was able to calm the words again, and it was clear that she was much more aurally aware of the whole texture once again.

We took this process of concentrating the musical attention a stage further with Lucy, by locating the music in a single fingertip. This was a technique I'd first used last year to deal with the issue of the sound dipping when a director's fingers curled inwards - which was happening a little here, but the issue this time was more about detail of the director-chorus connection. By focusing the musical attention so precisely, the singers were able to discover more nuance and clarity in the direction.

'Less is more' is another truism of directing technique, but it's not always easy to achieve less without feeling that expression or engagement is being lost. (The same trouble that singing quietly can present, indeed.) The thing is, we don't actually want less music, we want more concentrated gestures to get the same amount of music out of less physical movement. We want Fairy Liquid rather than Tesco Value gestures. And it seems that the way to achieve this is through focusing the musical attention rather than thinking about how we use our limbs.

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