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Developing the Director at Three Spires Harmony

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AprilTSHTuesday night took me over to Three Spires Harmony in Coventry to work primarily with their director, April Stevens. April is in her first post as a director, and having got a few months experience under her belt – getting to know the chorus, getting to know the music – she was ready for some specific input on her conducting technique.

Incidentally, April’s trajectory is an exemplary case study of what sociologist Robert Stebbins has termed a barbershop ‘career’. His point is that one of the things that marks a hobby out as ‘serious leisure’ is the way its structure offers opportunities for individuals to progress and develop over time.

So, like April, you can start out as a singer in a chorus, get promoted onto its music team, and from there be in a position to take on the directorship of another local chorus. In April’s case, this career progression is being explicitly supported by the director of the chorus she sings with, The Belles of Three Spires, and I am certain this mentoring has helped both chorus and director settle in together more readily. I just mention it in case anyone else wants to do likewise in similar circumstances.

(Quartet singing is the significant step on the barbershop career ladder, and one which I often recommend to potential directors as a training ground in musicianship.)

At the start of the evening I could tell that April had already had some input on her directing by how hard she was working to avoid mouthing the words. Interestingly, she became more reliable at this as the other things we worked on bedded in: keeping the posture more stable and poised, bringing the gesture zone a little lower to support the tone better, reducing the number of gestures in use.

As ever, the opportunity to work on these things with her own chorus gave all kinds of benefits. It is immediately motivating to a director to hear how changes in their technique can improve the sound they elicit; by the same token, knowing what sound to listen out for helps them rediscover what they did to make the improvement. It also builds trust with the chorus, and makes a powerful statement of values.

The dialogues that can open up in this space also develop a lot of insight into the process. At one point, I had encouraged April to shift from directing every event (primarily led by lyrics) to simply outlining the rhythmic framework and letting the singers slot themselves in. Her initial response was that it felt like she wasn’t doing anything for them; the feedback from singers was that they felt they had more space to do things for themselves.

It was a brief, but very rich exchange, illustrating how the urge to overdirect can spring from a place of generosity rather than controllingness, but that nevertheless it is more generous to hand more autonomy to the singers.

In a rubato context, you don’t have the same option simply to outline metre, but in a ballad where people know the general shape of the music well, you can do a lot less than you think. We used an exercise in which April only gestured for starts and ends of phrases, basically managing the breath points and leaving the rest in the hands of the singers.

The primary purpose of this is a structured way to avoid doing too much, but as so often happens when you pick the right exercise for the moment, it gives all kinds of other benefits. Everybody became much more alert to the phrase structure, in both a musical/delivery sense, and in terms of managing the breathing. The breath points themselves became much more artistic in response to this attention. I found myself resolving to use the exercise for these purposes, not just to help with directing technique.

Then the magic bit happened. I invited April to let her left hand into the gesture space for the musical moments she felt were the most beautiful. She didn’t need to signal for the singers to do anything, just respond sparingly to the best bits of the song. The right hand would just continue to manage the breath points, nothing more. The singers’ response was gorgeous – free, natural, intuitive shaping that shared in the beauty of those moments.

Musical experiences like that are facilitated by finding that ‘just enough but no more’ level of conducting technique. But they can only happen in the context of trust. If the chorus and April had not already nurtured a working relationship of mutual respect and affection, all the technique in the world wouldn’t have helped. The beauty is their reward for putting faith in each other.

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