Harmony in Wessex
Saturday took me down to Poole to work with Wessex Harmony and their director Dyrck Lamble. Dyrck had set an agenda for the day that involved breadth of repertoire rather than intensive coaching on just a couple of pieces, and we spent chunks of 20 minutes each on several repertoire songs interspersed between the work on the music they are preparing for the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers Convention in October.
As a result, we covered noticeably more different techniques and approaches than one would in a coaching session that had a narrower repertoire focus – and I found it made me much more aware of the techniques of prioritising. At the same time, of course, it gave us less chance to embed skills, and thus leaves the chorus not only with a longer list of things to work on, but also more responsibility to do so in order to make sure they become secure and permanent parts of their skill base.
Since Judy Pozsgay’s workshop in May, I have been using her tip to try singing on one leg as a useful coaching tool to help people develop an active bodily engagement with singing. On Saturday we extended its benefits to the director. Not only is there the obvious mirroring/modelling aspect to be gained here, but it is a wonderful way of moderating conducting gesture so that it stays in harmony with the rest of the body. When you are standing on one leg, you quite naturally avoid doing things with your arms that will disturb your balance.
Another rehearsal technique we played with between director and chorus was to have Dyrck direct with his eyes closed. This, as he pointed out, seems quite counter-intuitive, as the importance of eye-contact is routinely promoted as part of the director’s best practice. But as an exercise, it has some quite dramatic results.
What it does is this: by closing down the visual channel as a means by which both to collect and broadcast information, it opens up the ears. Again, a side-effect of this is to moderate gesture – and Dryck gave some very interesting and insightful feedback on what he was experiencing as this happened. He became aware of his gestures emerging from a different cognitive process from usual – instead of drawing on gestures practised when preparing the music, he found them coming much more directly from his response to the music heard in the moment.*
From the way he talked about this, he wasn’t sure whether he should be revelling in the musical spontaneity or concerned about his loss of prepared technique. The chorus were quick to reassure that they had found the experience valuable – they said they found themselves watching his hands more and his face less, but also that they still found his face expressive and didn’t feel a sense of distance from the loss of eye-contact.
But it’s still a good question: how much should a director be using prepared gestures and to what extent should they be responding in the moment? It’s easier to answer the question if you think of conducting gesture as part of musical thinking, and not just a semaphore system. If you don’t have a reasonably well-developed gestural grasp of a piece, you probably haven’t done enough preparation. But equally, there are always new things to be learned both about the music and about the needs of the singers in the dynamic real-time experience of rehearsing and performing – and these discoveries will in turn feed back into the director’s private practice.
Another notable feature of the day was the opportunity for seasonal metaphors offered by the Olympics. We found ourselves discussing the director-chorus relationship in terms of dressage – how the horse needs to respond to the rider in real time, not just do practised moves on autopilot. The baton handover in a relay was an obvious way to think about passing a melody between parts. And singing a phrase is like BMX racing: the start is everything. A dodgy one, and all is lost; a good one, and you will complete the phrase like a winner.
* For an in-depth discussion of this type of musicotopographic gesture (that is, gesture that traces the shape of musical thought), see Chapter 11 of my book, Choral Conducting and the Construction of Meaning