Reflecting on Directing

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The Director's RolesThe Director's RolesI spent an hour and half earlier this week with a director of a women’s chorus helping her identify ways in which she can develop her own and her singers’ skills. It’s an interesting process – directors are by temperament inquisitive and enjoy analysing what’s going on in musical and interpersonal situations, but their role tends to focus this attention away from themselves and onto all those people who both outnumber and rely on them.

At the start of the session, I presented her with the diagram above as a starting point. There are multiple different ways you can divide up a conductor’s various roles, but this seemed as good a starting point as any – its purpose was not to provide an exhaustive theory of conducting, after all, it was just there to give focus and structure to our discussions.

My premise was that most people who direct a choir find some of these dimensions come quite readily, while others immediately jump out as areas of challenge. People’s confidence in this kind of exercise is a pretty good proxy for competence; we tend to feel anxious about things we find hard and happy about things we do well.

Inverse Yerkes-Dobson curve: Awareness increases with strength of affectInverse Yerkes-Dobson curve: Awareness increases with strength of affectThis assumption proved largely valid, though what I found more striking as we talked through them was that the content of some areas was significantly more self-evident than others. Awareness was much stronger in those areas of extreme response – either positively anxious or positively confident – than in the areas where she didn’t have particularly strong feelings, making a kind of inverted Yerkes-Dodson curve.

I also noted that when I was planning the session, I likewise found some areas easier to flesh out than others, but in a somewhat different pattern. Here’s what I came up with in my preparation – though of course you can’t see either the order in which I thought of things to add or how long different ideas took to emerge!
LG version
(Hmm, and now I look at it with fresh eyes I'm not convinced of its legibility to anyone other than me. The ubiquity of computers has pretty much reduced handwriting to a private code I sometimes think. Well, if nothing else it shows that I do actually do the exercises I ask others to.)

It strikes me in retrospect that part of the value of these kinds of tools for structured reflection is in drawing attention to these middling bits. Most of us are pretty aware of our clear strengths and weaknesses, but the bits of a job we do okay but don’t really think about very much are probably exactly the bits that we could usefully develop to gain significant improvements in our performance.

As the discussion wound round the various dimensions of the directing role, a theme emerged of how the thing that singers respond to most positively after a rehearsal is when the sound is rich and full. The weeks when they are most likely to thank their director for a great evening are the ones when they have produced the best vocal and musical results. This, in passing, is a useful thing for everyone who directs a choir to remember: our singers are happiest when they are sounding their best.

The task then emerged to understand what’s going on when this magic happens. A director may feel they are coming to their rehearsals with a generally consistent method. The detail and content changes week to week of course, but the basic approach to planning and leading the sessions feels the same. But some weeks they produce amazing results, while others the results are merely okay.

We talked about arousal (including the Yerkes-Dodson curve), and the role of surprise or sense of occasion in igniting the singers’ engagement. We also talked about the use of language, and finding ways of building a culture of emotional audacity and willingness to show off within the world of British politeness.

We ended the session by compiling a to-do list, that included:

  • Spend a little time after each rehearsal noting things that worked well and moments that were less comfortable in order to start identifying the ingredients that create (or damp down) the magic
  • Record rehearsals in order to analyse use of language when working with the chorus
  • Explore resources for ideas for rehearsal activities/games (including the Inner Game principles, Tom Carter’s Choral Charisma methods and Jan Carley’s life-coach approach)
  • I’m sure there was another item, but of course she took the piece of paper away with her and I wrote the rest of this blog post before realising I should have written them down myself too, so now I’ve forgotten. Ah well, the person who really needs to know, does!

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