Director Coaching with Junction 14

Adjusting the conducting plane:: "Hold your plate of music low enough that you can pile it high and still see over the profiteroles"Adjusting the conducting plane:: "Hold your plate of music low enough that you can pile it high and still see over the profiteroles"Thursday evening took me down to Milton Keynes to work with the directing team of Junction 14 chorus. Both MD Hannah and her assistant Debbie have been regular participants in LABBS director training events, but they were after the extra depth and personalisation you get from being coached as a director along with the singers you work with regularly. This bring not only more one-to-one time, but the chance to enrol the chorus into the process of developing their directors.

For the truism that what a director does is directly mirrored by the chorus is balanced by a less often articulated truth that much of what a director habitually does is shaped by their singers. There are all kinds of interesting co-dependencies between a conductor and their ensemble, some of which are really helpful, others counter-productive. You can re-set the latter more readily by working with both ends of the relationship at the same time.

Developing Our Lexicon

One segment of our working brain-dumpOne segment of our working brain-dumpToday’s title is a direct quote from the inimitable Mo Field, who as Guest Educator at the LABBS Directors Weekend last summer, invited the assembled chorus directors to consider the kinds of vocabulary and turns of phrase they habitually use with their singers. What kind of values do they encode? What underlying messages do they give about what you care about?

Re-reading Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code earlier this year gave a nice cross-reference to his analysis of successful coaches. Distinctive and pithy catch-phrases that capture central principles of praxis are one of the characteristic behaviours that he documents.

Mo Field on the Needs of an Audience

One of the many things that ended up in my notebook under the heading ‘To think about later’ from LABBS Harmony College back in April was something guest educator Mo Field said about what an audience is looking for in performers. It now appears to be later, and my brain is ready to think about it.

In summary, the three things she listed were:

1. Is this competent? (Can they trust your skill-set?)
2. Can they believe you? (Are you saying something that matters to you?)
3. Is it relatable? (Are you saying anything that matters to them?)

The first thing to note is that these are both sequential and hierarchical. Until the listener is reassured that they’re safe in your hands from the perspective of your capacity to operate your instrument/ensemble, they’re not going to have any attention to give to the content of what you do. Assuming you are indeed competent, they’ll move on pretty much immediately to engage with your content.

Practice Gadgets as Feedback Tools

The term ‘practice gadget’ is one coined by Daniel Coyle to refer to tactics people use to selectively increase the challenge of what they are working on. The archetypal example would be the way that the popular game of futsal trained up a generation of Brazilian football players, documented in his first book. Working on a smaller scale than soccer, and using a ball with significantly less bounce, futsal makes players work harder at ball-handling and team interaction, leading to a level of virtuosity that the larger, outdoor version of the game rarely fosters.

There is another dimension to the practice gadgets though, not just the amplification of challenge: they provide a feedback-rich experience. The physical interface with the activity talks back to you with a constant stream of information about how you’re getting on.

The Path Through the Trees

Today I am going to mull on an intriguing bit of advice Mo Field offered at LABBS Harmony College in April. She suggested that chorus directors show their singers ‘the path through the trees’. By this she meant that instead of focusing on the percussive events (the trees), we should give attention to the overall line of the music.

Now, traditional conducting technique is all about clarity - the director’s primary task is to keep everyone unambiguously together. Leonard Bernstein talked about this role as ‘glorified traffic cop’; I have been known to refer to it as the ‘sheepdog function’. On the face of it Mo’s advice would seem to directly contradict this received wisdom.

Another Anniversary

Ten years ago today was my last day as a full-time university lecturer. Which means I’ve been freelancing for as long as I worked at Birmingham Conservatoire. Where did all that time go? Well, we can answer that as I’ve blogged about a lot of it on the way past. I’ve spent most of it working with singers and conductors, as arranger, coach and mentor, helping them do their thing with greater confidence, skill and joy.

When I left academia, I was often asked whether I saw myself going back. To which the answer was that I didn’t know. Ten years previously I hadn’t imagined going freelance, so I really couldn’t predict how I’d feel ten years on. Now that ten years has passed, I discover that I can’t imagine myself stepping back into full-time institutional life.

Adapting to Context on the abcd Conducting Skills Day

The group's analysis of the conductor's rolesThe group's analysis of the conductor's roles

Last Saturday gave me the treat of working in my home city, leading a Basic Conducting Skills day on behalf of the Association of British Choral Directors. I love events like these; the participants are always so engaged and dedicated to their singers, and so supportive to each other as they learn together. And they always come with such great questions, straight from coalface of practical problem-solving.

One of the things I found interesting about these questions was the way the answer so often included the caveat that best choice often depends on the context. The size of choir, the genre expectations and musical habits that come from them, the needs of that particular collective of singers. The decision about how to proceed then becomes a matter of figuring out the range of possibilities, and locating your particular circumstances within it.

Here are some of the subjects they raised:

Musicking with the White Rosettes


This may prove to be a tricky post to write. Not for any emotional complications – it tells of an entirely cheerful and purposeful occasion – nor for conceptual conundrums – we all knew what we were doing and we did it well. The problem is the entirely practical one of how do I write an account of a coaching session that was pretty much entirely about specific musical detail without actually talking about the music?

I run into this problem to an extent every time I go to coach an ensemble on a new arrangement that they will want to reveal at some point in the future, but there’s usually some generalisable technical points to distract you with while I’m avoiding naming the song. Is vagueblogging a thing?

And of course it would be unthinkable to go and work with the UK’s most consistently successful barbershop chorus and not blog about it. That would be silly.

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