Something that I’ve found striking when training or coaching novice and/or amateur choral directors is how often they express a desire for ‘quick fixes’. I used to think of this as rather shallow, rather like wanting some kind of miracle pill to make you healthy and beautiful rather than making the effort to eat properly and take some exercise. Directing singers is a more holistic and deep-thinking activity than that, I thought.
Last year I had an experience while coaching a barbershop chorus that put the whole thing in a new light, however.
The chorus was a typical small-town group: not especially skilled, but good enough to make a useful contribution to the musical life of their community.
I was working with them on what I thought was a major issue in the middle of a phrase, but the director stopped the chorus before we got to that point because he wasn’t happy with the lead entry, which was in a low tessitura and tending to sound muddy. I didn’t want to get held up on this detail, but equally realised that the director wasn’t going to want to deal with issues later in the phrase while it was still a problem. So, I asked the leads to brighten the vowel (I demonstrated the sound) and to put a tiny ‘h’ on the front of the word – and, hey presto, it came out cleanly and confidently and we got on with my agenda.
It was only when the director glanced at me with something akin to awe that I realised what this looked like: a miracle quick fix. It was true that I had dealt with the problem quickly (I had other fish to fry), and my solution worked a treat (if I do say so myself). But it wasn’t a ‘fix’ in the sense that it was a tool I could give to someone else and it would work magically for them too. Rather, any magic was in the diagnosis – the reason it worked so well was that I was able to perceive the nature of the difficulties the section was having, and as a result the corrective action was precisely suited to their needs.
But suddenly I understood where this desire for miracle cures comes from: it’s from seeing other people make light work of performance problems that inexperienced directors struggle with. And it’s true that experienced directors and clinicians are forever building up their repertoire of tricks and exercises and games and techniques to help choirs sing better. They steal these unashamedly from each other of course, but they also invent their own in response to the needs of the singers they work with.
And that’s the key thing: you can have as many ‘fixes’ as you like, but they’ll only be ‘quick’ fixes if they are exactly what the singers need. So, the best way to learn how to work miracles is to learn how to listen well, to observe your singers closely, to get into their heads and voices so that you really understand the nature of their difficulties. Once you can do that, figuring out how to help them really comes naturally.