Improving our Directing and Rehearsal Technique
One of the challenges about running rehearsals is that there is so much to do that you rarely have time to notice how well you are doing. You can get so wrapped up in the needs of the choir and the needs of the music that there is very little attention left over to self-monitor. But we still owe it to our choirs (and our audiences) to improve ourselves, so here are several ways I’ve figured out over the years to address this:
- Private Practice
Well, pianists, violinists and singers all spend a lot of time by themselves working on their technique – so why shouldn’t conductors? Practise in front of a mirror to cross-reference what you movements feel like with what you want them to look like. Practise different versions of gestures for any one piece of music to work out which best fits your conception of how the music should go. The gestures that will come to hand in rehearsal and performance when you are thinking about other things are the habitual ones, so use private practice to establish good habits.
- Mental Rehearsal
Planning a rehearsal doesn’t have to be just a matter of organising the time to be spent on each piece of music and its associated learning strategies. Planning a rehearsal can also involve playing out everything you plan to do in your imagination. Envisage yourself leading the rehearsal: being dynamic when the music needs energy, being patient when the singers hit a tricky passage, being calm and focused when you want to hear really crystal clear intonation. Rehearsals never go exactly as you imagine them, but the more time you spend in mental rehearsal, the easier it becomes to respond confidently and creatively when things don’t go to plan.
- Watching Others
We spend so much of our musical lives either conducting or performing for conductors, but so little time just observing how other conductors go about doing things. But it is a truly wonderful way to improve your own gestures and rehearsal techniques. It really gives you the chance to reflect on what’s working, and how it’s working.
A note of caution though – as you can imagine, having somebody who is not part of the musical activity observing can be intrusive, so always make sure you observe from somewhere where you can’t distract either director or choir. And if a director turns down a request to observe them in rehearsal, don’t take it personally – they’re perfectly entitled to make judgements about what will work for their own singers!
- Change one small thing at a time
You may have fifteen or more ways you want to improve your directing, but if you try to work on all of them at once you’ll never sort any of them. But you can make small changes to your habits, one at a time. Some years ago, it was pointed out to me that I didn’t need to tell the choir, ‘oh, we’re doing fine for time,’ each time I checked my watch to monitor the operation of the rehearsal plan – it didn’t help them sing better, so they didn’t need to hear it. This was great feedback (thanks, Jonathan!) – as it is precisely the sort of small habit that you can resolve to change in rehearsal.
- Listen to the Choir
You haven’t got time or spare attention to monitor yourself in rehearsal, but you will be spending a lot of time and attention monitoring how the choir is getting on. Are they confident? Are their voices free? Are they keeping the tonal centre in place? Are they well balanced? Do they understand the music?
And you know what? All this is absolutely golden feedback about your conducting. If the voices are tight, it tells you that you need to free your own neck; if the sound is breathy, you need more strength in your stance; if the music needs more flowing qualities, so do your gestures. Listening attentively to the results you are getting is the most efficient and accurate means to gauge how you’re doing as a director, and thus the most direct route to improvement.
More suggestions welcome please!