Why You Need to be Able to Demonstrate All the Parts

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This is an addendum to my post on preparing music to direct. I had a response from a director saying that his section leaders are charged with demonstrating their parts in rehearsal, and that he thought his time would be better spent doing various analytical tasks such as harmonic or voicing analysis. Now, I’m not one to discourage harmonic or any other kind of analysis, so please do continue doing this. But his comment made me articulate to myself why you still need to be familiar enough with all the parts to be able to demonstrate them in rehearsal.

When I’ve asserted this before, it has been in the context of why you need to know all the parts, and the ability to demonstrate them has been the measure of when you know them well enough. But this comment focuses the attention on why you also need to be able to demonstrate anything your singers might have to sing as a distinct desideratum in its own right.

First, it’s about rehearsal pace. Sometimes you only need to demonstrate three or four notes, and it takes time to delegate that to someone else. If you can just sing the three notes and bring the singers straight in to repeat it back to you, you have a much punchier learning experience.

Second, it’s about why you want it demonstrated. If it’s just that the singers seem to have forgotten how a phrase goes, then handing it over to a section leader makes perfect sense, especially if they have a nicer voice than you or a range better suited to the part. You’ll get a good model for the singers to replicate.

But much of the time what you need to demonstrate isn’t just the content of the line, it’s the detail of the performance. You need to correct placement or vowel shape or tuning, you need to refine articulation or emphasis or colour, you need to help the singers make sense of the line. Your demonstration here is a direct result of your listening to what has just happened, it meets an immediate need. You can’t delegate that context-dependent sense of purpose because it is integral to your response as director to what you've just heard.

Third, it is because the director’s demonstration works in the context of their gestures. Gesture is part of musical thought in very similar ways to the way it works with linguistic thought. (See my posts here and here and my second book for more on how this works.) So when a conductor demonstrates a passage, their spontaneous, song-accompanying gestures carry at least as much of the content of the message as their voices do. Then, when the choir sings, those spontaneous gestures inflect the conducting gestures, linking together thought and act. It’s absolutely fascinating to watch, and lies at the heart of really efficient rehearsing.

Of course, a lot of the ideas you want to demonstrate about shaping and expression in this way can be demonstrated in a kind of pitch-unspecific dum-diddly-um-pum-ing, as you can observe watching orchestral conductors at work. But, you know, the more actual right pitches you sing, the fewer errors you’ll introduce while rehearsing the delivery of the music.

(Orchestral conductors run less of a risk here since the music they conduct is mediated by the technology of instruments, and the players are more likely to keep playing the right notes written in front of them whatever nonsense the conductor has just come out with.)

Thank you, Liz, for your blogging. Loved your book, too.

And thank you for taking the trouble to say so! I'm always delighted when I find I'm not the only person who gets interested in this stuff...

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