ABCD Conductor Training Day

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The Coton Centre in Tamworth is a wonderful venue for musical training eventsThe Coton Centre in Tamworth is a wonderful venue for musical training eventsSaturday saw the Association of British Choral Directors Midlands Region hold a training day for conductors. There were two streams, one led by Sue Hollingworth for school teachers about the Sing Up programme, and I was presenting on the other for choral directors.

It was the second event at which I have been presenting recently where the group of participants felt almost perfectly constituted to offer a real range and breadth of perspectives. We had directors of church choirs, community choirs, long-established choral societies, male voice choirs and youth choirs. We had all ages from school-age to senior. We had beginners, seasoned directors, and those with some experience looking to build on their work so far.

Our first session was entitled ‘How to Help Your Choir Sing in Tune’, and took as its theme the idea that intonation issues are usually not simply about pitch, but reflect all kinds of underlying issues – psychological/emotional, musical understanding, vocal production, or a reflection of conducting technique. This thus provided a structure to share ideas and practical tips on all kinds of aspects of choral practice – from ways to refresh attention when the tonal centre flags (mental agility and the opportunity to laugh were key elements) to the development of musicianship and vocal technique.

A theme that emerged repeatedly in our discussions was the issue of resistance to change. Whether the question was moving the singers to sit in different places or introducing ways to reduce vocal tension, there was a recurrent refrain of ‘my singers don’t want to do that – they want to keep doing things as they have been for the last 30 years’. We discussed various methods of persuasion, most especially framing the suggestions in terms that resonate with the kinds of values that individuals care about, and having the patience to let the musical improvements change can bring about do your persuasion for you.

In the middle of the afternoon, both streams came together to hear Sue present on the theme of ‘running a successful choir’. She opened her session with the over-arching message that it takes energy. And this quality was repeatedly evident in her recurring advice to challenge yourself. One of the most impressive aspects of her talk was the frank and honest way she has acknowledged her fears and weaknesses and tackled them head-on. She gave several accounts of moving from unconscious to conscious incompetence (in a relative sense, obviously!) in various dimensions of the job, and how she handled the realisation that there were areas in which it was possible to be much more highly skilled than she had previously assumed. Often her response was to take courses to develop these skills. Indeed, in at least one instance, the realisation came through doing a course – so CPD appeared as not only means to addresss skill deficits, but also way to assess their degree.

Challenge was also integral to her collection of approaches she grouped under the heading of ‘drawing the singers to you’. Members of her choirs are left no space to miss rehearsals because there is always something big coming up. Activities that involved travel and food are also important as a way to increase social glue between singers. They get motivated to keep coming not only for the singing and music but also for each other.

The thirst for development she stimulated set up our final session wonderfully. The theme was ‘sharpening the saw’ – how conductors can develop themselves. The reason why this is perhaps more of a challenge than it immediately appears is not because conductors aren’t interested in growth (far from it!), but because the nature of their role means that they are so focused on the development of other people.

‘How can I better serve my choir?’ slides very easily back into ‘How can I improve my choir?’ The questions are of course closely interrelated in both practical and principled dimensions, and yet they also remain somewhat distinct. Both the object of reflection and the steps one might take to answer the questions take place in somewhat different arenas.

This is nicely illustrated by one of the techniques we discussed – that of recording the rehearsal. With a focus on developing the choir, most of your attention will go on their singing, spotting errors that need correcting, or aspects of vocal technique and ensemble that need refining. With a focus on developing the director, your attention turns to different elements. You might analyse your language: am I asking for things in positive or negative terms?; can I make my points more efficiently? ; am I talking too much? Your attention to the singing is likely to home in on to the changes you were attempting to make, and which rehearsal tactics were successful or unsuccessful in achieving them.

(If you also share the recording with the singers - one delegate talked about using Dropbox for this purpose - a whole different set of learning needs and responses get activated as well.)

The day also saw the launch of a peer-mentoring scheme in the ABCD Midlands Region. Members will be getting an email about it this week, and need to get in touch with me by the end of the month to participate. If you’ve been wondering whether to join the association, this is just a small plug to let you know of the kind of grassroots networking and development benefits it offers in addition to all the big headline national events.

Sounds like a fab day Liz!

One way of dealing with resistance to change is to not develop habits in the first place. If, from the very beginning of a choir, there is no 'norm', then there can never be the complaint: "I want to keep doing things as they have been for the last 30 years".

I try, but it's hard work keeping them on their toes. As Sue says, it takes a lot of energy!

From the front of the choir

Good point, Chris. One of the pay-offs for all the extra oomph it takes to start a choir from scratch is that you have some control over that. People taking over from a retiring long-standing incumbent do have the luxury of a well-developed infrastructure, but also the commensurate challenges of ingrained expectations.

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