Notes for Female Directors of Male Choruses
Actually, directors of any gender, and of any kind of choir can follow this advice to good effect, but I am highlighting that particular profile for two reasons. Firstly because the gender norms of personal presentation make it more likely for female than male directors to run into these issues, and secondly because if they are only directing male singers, they are less likely to get helpful feedback on them from within the group.
These are all simple things to get right once you notice them, but there’s no reason why everybody has to discover them the hard way. So, one of the purposes of this post is to have a resource to share periodically to help people make good decisions about stagewear.
The golden rule is: you should never have to touch your hair on stage. So, however you normally wear it, make sure it is secured out of your eyes for performance, and that you can bow without it flopping forward over your face. If you have hair of the tuck-behind-the-ear length, you probably don’t even notice how much you need to touch it in daily life. Don’t take this to the stage, though; it is a real distraction to the audience, and draws attention to you as a person, when their attention should be on the performance.
The detail of how you achieve this is entirely up to your own preferences, in the context of how your hair works and the general presentational style of your ensemble. Chignon, french plait, mohican, whatever. Just make sure that once you’ve done your hair for performance, you can ignore it.
Our shoes affect how we stand. How we stand affects how our choirs sing. It follows, therefore, that whatever you choose to wear on your feet for performance, you need to have rehearsed in. If not for you, for your singers.
You mostly notice shoe problems at the point of walk-on and taking the applause (this is true of any kind of musician - I had this conversation a lot with the postgraduate performers in my Conservatoire days). The kind of shoes that are sold to women for special occasions often have higher heels than the kind of footwear we normally stride around the universe in. You can see when a performer has new shoes they are not used to walking in very clearly as they emerge onto the stage.
But, beyond this distraction, the issue is more fundamentally that if you’re not used to walking in those shoes, neither will you be used to musicking in them. You fix this by rehearsing, as with any area of inexperience.
This will also tell you about suitability of footwear of course. If your shoes are not comfortable enough to rehearse in, they will detract from your performance - and thus also from your ensemble’s.
Every so often you see that some survey or other has revealed that the body part most women dislike about themselves is their upper arms. And yet female formal wear routinely puts them on display.
And you know what? However young, however lithe your body is, if you are conducting with good technique, the flesh will dangle. It’s not just a female thing, this; men with good conducting technique also have flappy bingo wings, it’s just that they never put them on display.
(How do I know this? you ask. I had a revelation sitting sideways on to a top-class male conductor taking a workshop wearing a polo shirt. I could see right up his sleeve. He had beautiful technique and very dangly upper arms.)
So: sleeves are your friend.
Visible panty line is actually representative of all questions about ‘how do I look from the back?’ And to be fair, this is the one that some male conductors also need to have a good think about. I am both gender-neutral and quality-neutral on this one: however appealing or unappealing your bottom is, I don’t want to have my attention drawn to it while you are conducting.
So, simple, practical things that if you get them right, nobody will notice. But if you don’t, it distracts the audience and gets in the way of your own work. This is true for all directors.
But the female director of male singers has enough obstacles of a cultural nature to contend with without getting undermined by these practical details. And, as I noted, they are the person least likely to get any practical help with them from the singers in their care, who (not unreasonably) assume that the female director will be far more expert than they are on how to present themselves.
We can talk about the cultural issues another day, but, in the meantime, get the practical stuff right.