The Conductors’ Four Questions

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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.

  1. What did we achieve?
  2. How does everyone feel about themselves?
  3. What does the music need?
  4. What do the singers need?

To start, a few words about the choice and phrasing of the questions.

The first one requires you to actually take stock of progress. Which sounds obvious, but it’s easy to err to either side of this if you’re not careful. On one hand, you can assume that time spent working on something is the same as getting better at it. You need to ask yourself a question that differentiates between what you covered and what the results of your efforts were if you are to accurately evaluate the usefulness of your rehearsal technique. On the other hand, you can get so focused on things that aren’t right that you forget to clock what gains you have made. It’s not just that your morale suffers if you don’t do this, but you need to acknowledge your achievements if you are to consolidate them.

Note also: what did we achieve? Making music is a collaborative effort and the conductor needs both to take responsibility for the shortfalls in achievement and share credit for the successes. Or, if you are the type to beat yourself up, the conductor needs to recognise where they have been successful if they are to own and build on those successes.

The second question asks you to pay attention to the singers, and draw conclusions from the wealth of information they reveal about themselves. Look at their faces and body language, listen to the tones of the voices, feel the pace and energy of the room. Keeping morale up is not merely about people’s emotional health, but central to a good choral sound. Emotions like anxiety, frustration or boredom are fatal to both pitch retention and resonance.

This question does two things in the reflection process. First, it makes you think more holistically when you might get stuck on technicalities. The immediate problem might look like, say, a lack of vocal support. But that may in turn be a symptom of self-doubt. You do need to address the technical issues, but you can do so far more effectively if you do so in the context of the overall psychological state of the singers.

Second, it helps you listen better. The conductor’s soundscape is a curious interplay of the imagined sound audiated in preparation and the real sounds coming into their ears from their ensemble. A lot of what gets labelled ‘inadequate aural skills’ in conductors arises from the internal source drowning out the external. Attending to your singers as human beings rather than as a choral instrument opens up access to all kinds of insights – both interpersonal and musical – that might otherwise pass you by.

The last two questions build your to-do list for what to work on next. Sometimes (maybe even usually) they produce what are essentially the same answers. The music needs more melodic sweep, the singers need a more secure, deep-seated breath. But asking it from both directions makes you think round the question, and gives you multiple options for how to approach it.

Approaching these questions in terms of needs, rather than faults, keeps you forward-looking and purposeful. It takes you beyond just noticing what currently is not yet right, and takes your imagination to what would transform that into a more ideal future state.

The thing I like about these questions is that they work very flexibly at all levels of detail. One of the directors I have give them to remarked on how they made her think in much wider, more global terms than the nuts-and-bolts level she usually focused on in her diagnosis and planning.

But they also allow you to drill down right into the nuts and bolts at a moment-to-moment level. I caught myself using them recently when helping out with some trouble-shooting on a tricky harmonic passage:

Q. What did we achieve there?
A. The first four notes of the bottom two parts are locked in together in a way that tells me the singers understand the relationship between them.

Q. How does everyone feel about themselves?
A. Anxiety levels are starting to recede, but the singers are still worried about what comes next. I’m feeling grateful to my past self for the detailed analytical work I did on this passage, which is giving me confidence.

Q. What does the music need?
A. It needs a clearer, more resonant tone to make those locked lower parts stable enough to support the other two on top.

Q. What do the singers need?
A. They need to hear themselves do this well in order to believe it is possible.

I didn’t think it through in quite such explicit detail at the time of course. But that was the diagnostic process that resulted in the decision to take that tiny segment in two parts again a couple of times, with interventions that involved refreshing posture and lifting the cheeks, and with recognitions that enrolled the singers in the other two parts in celebrating how good it sounded with a brighter, more supported tone.

And of course, there isn’t time in rehearsal to work through these questions analytically like that. But the experience gained in reflecting on your rehearsals through these lenses pays off in the kinds of insights and decisions that then become available in the heat of the musical moment.

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