Choral

On Punching Up

This is one of those ‘writing it out to see if I can work out what I think’ posts. I have been thinking recently a lot about the dynamic in which a choral director finds themselves being bullied by a member of their choir. Chris Rowbury wrote an insightful post on the kind of dynamic of which this is a particular type some time back, which prompted some painful and heartfelt conversations within various communities of choral directors in which I’m involved.

There’s stuff going on behind the scenes to develop training and support for choir leaders – both musical and administrative – with the aim of both helping reduce its incidence and help people cope with and resolve difficult situations whilst keeping relationships and emotional health intact. It may be appropriate to blog about some of that in due course, though it’s currently at too early a stage to go into any detail.

Getting into our Ears

The theme for our recent joint LABBS/BABS Directors Weekend was ‘The Listening Director’. It was originally sparked by a request from a delegate at LABBS Harmony College directors stream last year for more work on diagnostic listening skills in rehearsal (initial response: yes that’s very important, let’s do more on it!), and then kind of snowballed from there.

The more you think about the ways and contexts in which chorus directors have to listen, the more it asserts itself as the central skill of the job. It’s more important in many ways than actual conducting skills, because however elegant your technique looks, it doesn’t do any good unless you can effectively hear what you’re getting in response to your conducting. Whilst if you can get your ears into the detail of how your chorus is singing, your gestures intuitively adapt themselves to those needs.

Tuning is a Performance Indicator, not a Goal

So here’s another one in the genre of ‘if you haven’t got time to read the post, the title says it all anyway’. I’ve had a few conversations recently about my preference to avoid talking about intonation in rehearsal if I can possibly avoid it, and it seems that some people equate this with not caring about intonation. So I wanted to clarify things a bit.

First off, I love the sound of in-tune singing. And by this I mean both singing that maintains tonal integrity (key note staying in the same place) and singing in which all the parts are in tune with each other. Both horizontal and vertical in-tuneness, if you like. And it’s not just the way that good tuning is more consonant and cleaner to listen to at an acoustic level, it’s all the way that it brings with it beauties of tone colour - clarity, ring, luminosity – and expressiveness that you may not hear at other times.

Preparing to be Coached in Conducting

This post was written as guidance notes for delegates to the LABBS/BABS Directors Weekend coming up in January. I’m sharing it via my blog because it has a wider applicability that goes beyond that one event. And if you’re not coming to the event, now you know what you’ll be missing!

Directing somebody else’s chorus is, as Sally McLean puts it, like wearing somebody else’s shoes. However experienced you are as conductor, it always feels weird at first. So, don’t worry, everybody feels like this, but we still do it because you can learn a lot from it, and it’s always lovely to have people singing with you, even in slightly unnerving circumstances. Bear in mind that your coaches at the weekend are also receiving coaching themselves, so will know exactly what it feels like!

These notes are to help you prepare for the experience. Both in terms of things you can do ahead of time to make the most of the coaching session, and in terms of letting you know what to expect.

On Managing Persistent Mistakes: Part 2 – Cure

In my last past, I reflected on ways to support singers in learning their music accurately, to save everyone the frustration of having to unlearn and relearn, which is much harder. But of course, as you are working with human beings, you will still encounter times where people have learned something wrong. And, like the scenario that prompted these posts, the problem is often not getting people to correct their errors, but of keeping them corrected.

I have been thinking about this from two perspectives. The first is how to interrupt the behaviour pattern that includes the mistake(s). A persistent error is persistent because it has been practised, and if you want to replace that pattern with something else, you need to prevent them strengthening that neural pathway any more. In Alexander Technique terms, this is called Inhibition.

On Managing Persistent Mistakes: Part 1 - Prevention

There was an interesting conversation recently in a Facebook group for chorus directors about the challenge of a singer who was consistently getting some notes wrong. They were able to sing the right notes correctly in section, but reverted to the wrongly-learned version when back in the full ensemble.

The director who raised the question framed it in terms of the dilemmas of expectation-setting and qualification for participation in performances. They didn’t want to be the kind of group who excluded people, but equally the errors were disturbing other singers and obviously had an impact on the quality of performances. The ensuing discussion included a lot of wisdom about setting up systems to manage quality control in the context of individual development. The shared goal was to support people to succeed.

On Musicking in the Moment

Music is, by definition, a time-based art-form, so producing sounds one after another is inherent to its praxis. But, as I explored a few years back, the unrelenting march of musical time can create unhelpful pressures on musicians, and, when not actually performing, it is often valuable to suspend time and let moments elongate themselves around you.

I recently remembered a lovely exercise that Jim Henry did with the White Rosettes at the LABBS Directors Weekend in 2015. He had them sing the target vowel of a particular syllable in the lyric of their song, but without knowing until he signalled whether they were going to sing that word, or another with the same vowel. I forget which actual words were involved, but for example sustaining ‘moo’, without knowing until the signal whether the word was going to become ‘moon’ or ‘mood’.

How Listen and Do at the Same Time

One of the biggest challenges that novice choral directors face is learning how to listen to the singers at the same time as directing them. It sounds so simple, written like that, and is clearly fundamental to the conductor’s task, but as people new to the activity invariably discover, it is easier said than done.

You see, we each only have the one brain each. And if that brain needs to pay a lot of attention to unfamiliar motor skills in the context of complex musical content, it doesn’t have very many cognitive resources left over to dedicate to the sound coming into it. As one acquires experience, the raw panic of overwhelm subsides, but the challenge remains. There is a lot going on when you conduct a choir – all those people singing at once, each with their specific musical and personal needs - and we still have only the one brain with which to process it all.

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