Back with the Belles

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On Wednesday I had a return visit to work with the Belles of Three Spires in Coventry. As with my previous work with them, it was a nice balance between work with the singers on musical detail and work with the directing team on aspects of conducting technique.

The first part of the evening was spent delving into the nitty-gritty of a song they had learned to that stage of basically-solid-but-not-yet-nuanced. The process was one of connecting the detail of arrangement choices to the narrative and emotional state of the song's protagonist - i.e. a process of characterisation. That makes it sound very grown-up. But it was a playful song, so that gave us the excuse to use lots of highly frivolous metaphors. You know you're going to have a laugh when the rhythmic flavour a song needs is 'giggle'.

In the second part of the evening I worked with Lindsey - the assistant director I have worked with before - and Sylvia, who is very new to the directing team. It was a rather boggling experience in anticipation for Sylvia, who has hardly had time to get used to all those singers all looking at her, let alone being observed by a coach as well. But one of the great things about this kind of situation is that the sheer act of directing takes so much attention that once the music starts, you haven't got very much spare capacity to waste on bogglement.

Sylvia was in that classic position of a recently-appointed novice director who has clear musical ideas but was worried about what she was doing gesturally. We got her sorted out with a nice clear method to get everyone started, and then concentrated on removing distractions. She was already working on not mouthing the words - and it was interesting to observe that when she succeeded, she got a more flowing line from the chorus.

We also looked at her left hand, which had a tendency to 'ghost' along with the beat. We worked on giving it a more purposeful function. Either removing it from the frame entirely, in which case it needed to be calm and not draw attention to itself, or making a clear decision to involve it in the directing. This is going to take some practice to secure, but early indications are that she can elicit much clearer and more confident musical effects from the singers this way.

The work with Lindsey did involve some work on hand technique, but focused much more on her ears. She had identified a passage that she wanted to work on because she felt it lacked clarity - it was a harmonically rich passage, to the neutral syllable 'do' - and the brief was to work with both her and the chorus to bring it into focus. We started off with developing a more resonant 'oo' vowel to give both director and singers more to hang their hats on aurally. (And coach, come to that.)

The music was in that state where everyone is singing accurately, but it's not quite gelling into a whole. This is a sign that people are too focused on their own lines with not enough attention to the overall texture. We spent some time duetting pairs of parts, with the dual purpose of allowing the singers to hear what each other were doing and giving Lindsey the chance to listen in detail to how she was directing them. Her directing improved in clarity and precision as her ears homed in on the detail of how the different duets worked.

When we put it back together, the one thing it still needed was a little more richness in the baritone line. And what it took to produce this was Lindsey consciously directing her attention to that part of the texture.

This is the magic, the alchemy of directing. How the precision and clarity of a conductor's attention directly affects the quality of what the singers can produce. Clean and elegant gestures are wonderful things, but a conductor's hands are only ever as effective as their ears allow.

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