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Conducting, and Teaching Conducting, Online

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The new multiple highlight function is great, but only if everyone has the newest version of the appThe new multiple highlight function is great, but only if everyone has the newest version of the app

On Saturday afternoon I spent an hour teaching a session on Basic Directing Skills as part of the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers’ eOnline programme. (As an aside, it’s a fab programme – really varied classes, and there have been a couple or three a week all summer.)

This is a set of skills I have taught many times over the years, but never previously in a situation in which you can’t use sound as part of the learning process. Which is rather the point of directing, isn’t it? The process at the heart of both teaching conducting and the act of conducting itself is to listen to what you’re getting back and adjust your own posture, gesture, and facial expressions to make it sound better.

Still, you can capture some of the experience. Explanation and demonstration is still there, giving people a sequence of actions to copy to establish the methods for starting and stopping the sound and for creating an ictus. You can also spotlight individuals to have a go: even if they can’t hear the sound they’re getting back, the people singing along on mute at home can learn a lot from seeing how changes to gesture affects their own singing experience at home.

And even without sound I do have enough experience to be able to offer advice that will help on the basis of what I can see. I note, as an aside, that virtual rehearsal seems to have brought a lot of people’s gestures up higher, near their faces. Whilst one can understand, from the logistics, why this has happened, it remains more helpful to our singers to keep our main conducting plane lower, connected to the seat of the breath, even if we have to fiddle with our camera set-up to make this visible.

After the session, one of the participants contacted me with an excellent question, so I said I’d answer it in the blog as it seemed so relevant to all of us these days:

Also, this has inspired me to try directing again on Zoom. I had a go a while ago, but some people had really poor connection and were finding it frustrating. It is also very strange directing into the silent void and having to hold all the sound in your head. You touched on this, but do you mind if I ask whether you do much virtual directing and how it works for you?

This goes right to the heart of the matter for me. When we first went online I don’t think I directed a song for a good two months. It was impossible to get any kind of interaction with live sound, so any time we had someone singing to us, they got to be in control of the musical flow, and if I wanted them to shape things differently, my job would be demonstrate rather than direct it.

We also didn’t do any of the ‘singing along to learning tracks together’ kind of activities in those first two months, because that did not seem to me to offer an experience that differed from what we were expecting people to do for their homework in their own time. I felt that rehearsal needed to offer a more interactive experience than that. We still don’t do much of that, actually, though we have found some ways to make it more of a learning experience, and less like group karaoke. Even when we do, though, I don’t necessarily direct as everyone knows how the tracks go, and they don’t need me to coordinate to it.

When we started working on a recording project, using a song we had started learning in lockdown, I did a bit more directing: I got the feedback that people appreciated having things like breath-points and expressive shape clarified, especially as we had at that time no experience of singing the song together. I also did a guide video for the recording itself, which elicited the interesting feedback that until they saw it, people hadn’t realised how much my directing worked in response to the sound, and how different it looked without that interaction.

So in many ways, my experience confirms the feeling in the question that there’s relatively little point to conducting online. But as she’s made me think about it, I have identified two aspects of our online rehearsals where my gesture has had the opportunity to be useful.

First is in our warm-ups. Over the past couple of years, we’ve used quite a standardised set of exercises, in the context of systematic work on a particular set of vocal skills, so we have well-established routine. I direct these in part just to keep us on track together: this long to sing, and here’s the note for the next repetition. But I also know the kinds of things that the voices have needed as we work on them, so whilst I only have the voices in my head to respond to in gesture, I know what those voices sound like, and I know how I’ve used my body to help them when we work together on these specific tasks. I can’t respond in real time, but I can tap into shared experience in the hope that it will help the singers access it too.

Secondly, I have noticed myself using my non-dominant hand sometimes to help a singer whilst coaching. This is much more like the kind of gesture one uses while coaching a quartet: it’s not about determining the pacing of the delivery, as that remains within the singer’s control, it’s more about creating a shared musical world in which you work together.

These gestures can never be about exact real-time issues, by definition, but you can pick up the idea you’ve just asked a singer to work on in anticipation as they approach that moment so it’s there in their consciousness for when they need it. The gestures are entirely musicotopographic: I’m not thinking about what I’m doing with my hands, I’m thinking about the musical needs, and my hands are part of the thinking process. But I can tell it’s making a difference, as people succeed more readily when I’m in the musical flow with them than when I stand back and leave them to it.

So, what started out as an account of other people learning how to conduct has turned into a lengthy reflection on my own experience, But to be fair, that was what I was asked. And in the process I have come out with some interesting thoughts about how one might teach the use of the non-dominant hand in conducting. I’ll leave those for another day as this is more than long enough already.

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