Soapbox: How Can You Tell a Good Director?

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soapboxEvery so often, you hear someone articulate the idea that ‘So-and-so is a very good director, but their choir isn’t very good’. And when I hear this, my brain goes into melt-down at the sheer invalidity of this concept. The only measure of a conductor’s quality is the standard of performances they elicit from the musicians they work with. If your ensemble isn’t very good, it’s because the director isn’t very good.

Okay, so there are some caveats here. I anticipate your objections.

The raw material makes a difference. A director who is working with novices will not, from a standing start, produce results as good as one working with experienced musicians. This is particularly true of instrumental groups, but also a fair generalisation for singers. You’d expect auditioned choirs to achieve more than non-auditioned, as they have filtered out all the people who lack whichever set of skills you test for at audition.

But within your range of expectations for a particular cohort, a good director will get people to out-perform what they (and possibly everyone else) thought they could achieve, and help them over time to become more proficient musicians. Whatever the level of intake, we call a ‘good’ ensemble one that improves over time and which shows a real commitment to making the music. That’s why you can get good or bad school orchestras as well as good or indifferent professional symphony orchestras - the skill levels are different, but it is still reasonable to consider how they are doing relative to their current potential and peer group.

Length of tenure also makes a difference. A new director coming in to work with an ensemble with haphazard skills and bad habits won’t immediately produce top-notch results. It could take up to a couple of years to really turn things around. But they’ll nonetheless make a difference from the get-go if they’re any good. And then they’ll continue to make a difference every rehearsal. If people leave every rehearsal doing better than they did at the start, that adds up over time to solid development.

But a director who leads an ensemble over a period of years that remains underdeveloped relative to its peers is not a particularly good director. They may be an excellent musician, they may be an excellent organiser (and both of these are qualities that sustain middling to unremarkable ensembles in a state of relative stability over considerable lengths of time), but in the particular role qua director, the descriptors they merit are the same descriptors you would use for the performances they produce.

You can tell a good director by the good performances you hear from their ensembles.

It's a wet afternoon, and I was going through some of your articles Liz and this struck a chord.
Having been one of the 12 members involved in the creation of The Cheshire Chords, then founding Heartbeat and Affinity, developing an effective and most importantly, supportive music team is instrumental in the development of a group, and helping develop confidence and skills to a degree of competence. In my experience it's easier to develop a good team and direct a new ensemble, full of enthusiasm and keen to try anything without preconceptions, rather than trying to develop a dyed in the wool, always been this way, older club, often full of potentially resistant characters,who can often demotivate even the most enthusiastic director. It's often down to the reality facing a club, rather than their perception of that reality? This possibly leads us into your discussion about the charismatic choir!
How many older clubs would follow Sheffields exciting initiative? There will be pro's and con's with that I'm sure, but it's without doubt the bravest move I've ever seen an older club embrace, I could be mistaken, feel free to correct but from what I'm told, the older members accepted the ambition of achieving contest success was getting harder to sustain and looked for alternative ways to sustain the clubs future, more power to the club members for supporting it, I bet it wasn't an easy decision!.
For two years I was privileged to direct a men's club, and my experience there was very different, though their dedication to the club and each other was indisputable, they are a great club, but not a great competing chorus, with a culture resistant to developing the "individuals" required to create a music team of great vocal skills, rather than the best "techncians" the charismatic future leaders..in all ways they were different from the club's of my experience. In the end I had to accept they are happy being what they are, and that's fine, I'm grateful for the experience, it's given me clearer definition of what I need to create around me, my chorus and music team, to enable me to be a good director.
The gentleman have always been a great sing out club, stable and self sustaining and that's OK. They support the barbershop movement and will always be spportive of other clubs, and it's not their current directors who are always at fault for a lack of competition success, sometimes we must accept clubs for what they are and admire and support those doing their best in front of them. I wasn't the right person for that environment, I'm too driven, but I fully support the dedication of these directors, their goals are shaped by the club they direct, rather than the other way around, and I think they face the greatest challenge of all, and often are very capable of inspirational direction. We all try to lead from the front, but there's an old saying, 'you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink"
Les x

Thanks for your thoughts, Lesley. There's a whole other set of thoughts you're developing there about how much a director can define a chorus's identity and ethos, and how much that has its own independent life. As well as the issues of continuity in older groups of course.

And glad you found some useful browsing for a wet Sunday afternoon!

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