NAC Conference 2012

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NAC delegates enjoying the sun at lunchtimeNAC delegates enjoying the sun at lunchtimeAt the weekend I had the pleasure of presenting at the National Association of Choirs annual conference, held this year on the shores of Lake Windermere. It was a most friendly and cheerful event – no doubt aided by the beautiful setting and glorious weather, though it was also clear that the one of the things the conference offers is a chance to maintain and renew the friendships people have made through the association.

The event was topped and tailed with association business: the AGM on Friday evening and a members’ open forum closed Sunday’s events. An exhibition of trade stands runs throughout the main body of the conference, and, as the last time I attended, the presentations include both practical sessions and informational ones. This year, Saturday’s programme was focused on choral skills, while Sunday saw a presentation by a tour company.

I opened the proceedings on Saturday morning with a one-hour session based on my workshop on Developing the Ensemble. It also needed to double as a warm-up session, since I predicted that not many people would have done much singing before 9.30 that morning. (As far as I could tell, I was the only person having a surreptitious warm-up in the hotel grounds after breakfast. There may have been other singers hiding behind bushes, but I didn’t hear them…)

The following three sessions were led by David Lawrence, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to stay on for two of them. Indeed, we were both pleased to find a number of themes resonating between our sessions. This is welcome for the presenters as it’s always nice to feel validated, but it’s even better for the delegates, as approaching similar themes through slightly different methods allows a deeper and more embedded learning experience.

One idea of David’s that I particularly liked was the way he introduced the notion that each individual singer needs to take responsibility – an idea that everyone always accepts in theory but does not always implement quite so readily. If you are a soloist, he pointed out, if you don’t do it, it doesn’t happen – there’s no option for ‘after you…’.

So he asked one singer to start singing the line by herself – which she did. He then asked her and the singer next to her to start, and so on through the trio, quartet and quintet versions. Every time there was that sense of all singers stepping purposefully into the music together. He then extended the request to half the room, then everybody present. Just a few minutes earlier, when he’d asked the delegates to start singing together without a cue, there had been nothing but hesitancy, but by making people feel the responsibility of the soloist and chamber musician, he had inveigled everyone into accepting the need to participate in leading the music.

Another of his ideas I like was the distinction between watching (or indeed following) a conductor and rehearsing or performing with one. The former is an observational viewpoint, essentially passive, whereas the latter is participative. The point of the conductor is not to show a pulse, he suggested, but to stimulate one.

This resonates with the observation in Part I of my choral conducting book that of the two models conductors use to conceptualise the conducting process, most seem to favour the one that sees conductor and choir as interconnected over the one that sees the act of conducting as signalling. And now I think about it, it is also related to the question of the conductor’s circle of influence, whether the choir see their leader as an external influence on their activities or as a participant. You do quite often see choirs who love their conductor, and watch them closely, but much in the way you’d watch telly, rather than in the way you’d join in with a Wii Fit. (I didn’t see that metaphor coming when I started that sentence!)

There is more in my notes from David’s sessions that I can fit into one post, but I wanted to share one more thought with you for now. It is a truism in my coaching that what people are thinking about is what the audience perceives, and I particularly liked the way David articulated this idea: ‘You know what’s on people’s minds when they’re so honest and open as to sing in your presence’. Isn’t that a nice way of recognising the natural expressivity people have and the way that singing is such a humane form of communication?

The corollary of this is that much of what we do in rehearsal is ‘trying to align what’s in our minds aligned with what we’re singing’. Again, this is a wonderful way of articulating that sense of imaginative engagement, of empathy with the music that goes on when performers ‘become the music itself’.

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