On the Inter-connectedness of All (Choral) Things

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To-do list for discussionTo-do list for discussionOn the recent abcd Midlands Conductors' Day, our final activity was a trouble-shooting session. We compiled a list of the top two or three things that each director felt would most help their choir to get sorted out, and then spent some time on each discussing different approaches to them. This kind of session works on the principle that it's much easier to solve other people's problems than your own, and even with your own, just talking them through with people who understand but aren't involved can open up all kinds of new ideas.

One item on our list gave a wonderful demonstration of how so many dimensions of leading a choir are related to one another. We can divide the craft up into all kinds of areas for convenience of training and development - musical, technical, leadership, organisational - but when dealing with the practical questions of how to get things done, we'll find ourselves moving through all these areas in turn.

The item in question was the challenge of choosing repertoire that would stretch the choir, without being so difficult that the choir started to complain. This started out looking like a question of repertoire planning - one of the dimensions to balance along with the need to create a coherent experience for audiences and a logistically-sensible event for the performers. But as we explored it, all kinds of other areas opened up.

First there was that feedback loop between the director's assessment of pieces, anticipating what the singers will grasp easily, and what they'll struggle with, and then using the actual experience with the piece to inflect future assessments and predictions. This is never an exact science, but your predictions do improve over time as you work with a particular group. The director who raised this has been with her choir for two years now, so has probably already experienced the hardest phase of this process, and is starting to get some potentially useful knowledge about how these singers interact with new material.

This led on in turn to the process of diagnosing skill deficits and planning how to address them over time. It is always useful to devise warm-up exercises that isolate particular challenges to be encountered in the music that will follow in the rehearsal. It is even more useful to devise exercises that will develop the skills that will be needed for music to be learned in a couple of months' time. The more we can reduce the shock to the system when the music arrives, the better.

This is easier said than done, of course. It is not just that it is adds another layer of complexity to what is already a complex planning task. It's that it relies for its success on accurately anticipating what your singers will end up needing help with, which as we have already established is not an exact science.

We then shifted over into talking about ways to enthuse singers about the music. This needs to come from the director, but it's also useful to enroll other choir members into 'selling' a piece to the choir - finding out about its background, what's interesting or special about it, why it will be meaningful to audiences. This can also include of course involving choir members in suggesting repertoire.

The point here is twofold. First, if someone is struggling with a piece, their instinct is to blame the director. The technical difficulty gets projected onto the director as a personal affront. (This is not unlike the argument that Beethoven's soprano lines result from his essential misogyny. Whilst you wouldn't call him the poster boy for enlightened and functional relationships with women, I tend to think this is a distraction when looking at his choral writing.) If the choir has a shared public value attached to the music that is independent of the conductor, and articulated in artistic terms, the difficulty recedes from being a point of contention, back into being a bit of music people need help with. And that is a healthier situation to deal with.

Second, people can take a dislike to things they find hard, but equally, they tend to pick things up more easily if they like them. If people connect at an expressive level with the music, not only does this carry them through the extra work technical challenges might need more willingly, but it can actually diminish their perception of technical difficulties, as they get the point of what the music is doing.

In terms of the Dilts pyramid, this discussion ranged right across the spectrum from changing behaviours (both social behaviours around response to music and singing behaviours around technical activities), through developing capabilities (skills development programmes built around and supporting repertoire), through to addressing beliefs (both about perception of the artistic value of pieces, and about beliefs about the choir's capacities to develop new skills).

The bit we didn't get onto was that of identity: the choir's self-talk and how that positions them in relation to taking on new challenges. But we had covered plenty, and it was there lurking in the background.

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