On Saturday I headed down to London to participate with 100,000 or so other people in the Unite for Europe march, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome. As you may have seen from my blog past last month I had got involved in a group intending to spend the march singing, and had done some arrangements for the occasion.
What I wasn’t entirely expecting to happen was that I ended up leading this scratch choir for the whole of the day. It’s fine, I’m always happy to help people harmonise, but it was an interesting case study in how, in a fluid situation, people get assigned roles very quickly.
When Jonathan and I found our way to our assigned meeting place, there were probably no more than 10 people gathered from our group. (It was kind of hard to tell as there was a horde of Liberal Democrats passing through the same place - some of whom stopped to sing with us en route.) But there were clearly enough of us to have a crack at one of the songs, and it just happened to be me who gathered together the various thoughts floating about (let’s start with Ode to Joy, let’s do a verse of unison and then go into parts, let’s try out the online karaoke app that delivers lyrics to people’s phones), gave a key note and start note, and coordinated the start with Alan who was controlling the app.
In my post last month on developing the director I wrote about the usefulness of having a regular appointment with yourself for structured work on a specified area for development. Today I’d like to talk about a set of questions that I give to conductors I work with to structure their reflective process.
What did we achieve?
How does everyone feel about themselves?
What does the music need?
What do the singers need?
To start, a few words about the choice and phrasing of the questions.
I don’t write very much about my one-to-one work with choral directors, as it’s mostly too personal. The coaching process with an ensemble is inherently a social process (though I am mindful about which aspects to share with people who weren’t there), but work with an individual is much more private.
But there are general themes that emerge repeatedly with different directors that I’d find it useful to reflect on, and other directors may find useful too.
A common dilemma is, given how much time and attention it takes to run a choir, how do you get time to develop your own skills too? We all have areas in which we can feel our weaknesses, but we don’t necessarily have space in our lives to take a course in music theory or conducing technique, or go for singing lessons, or whatever.
As I reported recently, both my books have been reissued in paperback. This is great news for anyone who was interested in them but put off by the cost of academic hardcovers.
However, the new print run hasn't included the DVD that accompanied the original publication of the second book, the one on choral conducting. This included footage of four conductors in action, each working in a different choral tradition, and formed the primary material for the detailed discussions in Part III of the book.
In order that new purchasers don't have to miss out on the full experience, I have uploaded all the clips to a youtube playlist. I have left this unlisted - so you can't just find it by searching - as the original filming was done for the purpose of accompanying the book, not general distribution. But I'll be more than happy to send a link to the playlist to anyone who has bought the book and doesn't have access to the video clips - just drop me an email to ask.
There’s an improvisation game called ‘Conducting’ I learned from my friend Steve Halfyard when we both taught musicianship at the Birmingham Conservatoire. One person acts as the ‘Conductor’ (you’ll see why the inverted commas in just a mo). Everyone else picks a part of the conductor’s body to follow, and decides what instrumental or vocal sound they will make when that body part moves. The conductor then starts moving experimentally to discover what sounds the different parts of the body elicits, and, as they figure this out, they can ‘play’ the corporate instrument.
It’s a great game. These days I use it when working with conductors, particularly novices who often need something to break the ice. But apart from loosening everyone up and getting them into the musically imaginative part of their heads, it is a brilliant way to draw attention to the fact that, as a conductor, all of you is visible.
Paperbacks: though without the lovely cover pic on the barbershop one...
The repetition in my title is for two reasons. First, because *both* of my books are now out in paperback. And second, because this was a surprise to me. The copies just arrived by post, without any prior communication from the publishers.
But a very pleasant surprise, I have to say. Both books came out originally in hardback, produced by an academic publisher which mostly focused on specialised material printed in small numbers and marketed primarily to libraries. As as an academic reader, this seemed perfectly normal to me. Most of my reading of specialist material takes place in (or from) libraries too. They are very useful amenities.
I recently read William Glasser’s book Choice Theory at the suggestion of a friend, and it has been a thought-provoking exercise. There is a good deal in the book that is open to critique - to the extent that if I didn’t trust the judgement of the person who recommended it, I may not have bothered to finish it - but there is also a good deal of humane and sensible advice in it.
So, I’m glad I did persist with it, and I’m prepared likewise to cautiously recommend it in turn, with the caveat that you need to be able to cope with an argument that quite often overstates its case and makes unsubstantiated (indeed, unsubstantiatable) assertions. If you’re not sure you want to cope with that kind of thing, here’s a summary of what I learned from it...
I mentioned recently an email with a couple of good, nitty-gritty questions about conducting technique. Having looked last time at how to wean an inexperienced choir onto needing only a single prep beat to come in on an anacrusis, today we’re onto a more complex conducting task:
How do you conduct something such as Gibbons Short Service, where there is no consistent number of beats to the bar?
This is an interesting question, as the available approaches are inflected by somewhat conflicting questions of technique, pragmatism and musical context.
I know conductors who would see the correct answer as: you change your conducting pattern every bar to give the right number of beats. And, whilst this is a sensible answer in that it will make sense to modern musicians accustomed to modern barring and modern beat patterns, I’m not sure it’s the most helpful answer to someone facing this challenge for the first time.