BABS Directors Academy 2018

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Donny and Amy introduce the weekendDonny and Amy introduce the weekend

One of the perks of my new role as MD of the Telfordaires is that I get to attend the annual training event that the run for their chorus directors. As you might imagine, it is the kind of occasion that fills your notebook with ideas to unashamedly steal, (or, shared best practices if you like to sound grown-up), and I’m sure my posts over the coming months will have many opportunities to refer back to it.

For today, though, I’d like to reflect on the opening session led by our primary guest educator, Donny Rose, who is the Education Director for the Barbershop Harmony Society. (We also had input from Amy Rose, who was there wearing two hats – as co-coach with Donny, and as social media expert for the BHS.)

Donny took as his starting point the conducting truism: What they see is what you get. This encapsulates one of the most powerful and daunting principles of choral conducting – the director’s posture, gesture and demeanour have a direct and intuitive impact on the choir’s sound. I have been fascinated by this for years, to the extent that the central research question for my second book could be paraphrased as, ‘That conductor-choir mirroring thing: what’s going on there?’

What I found interesting about Donny’s approach was that, rather than using this as a way into discussing conducting technique, as, say, Rodney Eichenberger does, he framed it in terms of the emotional tone of the rehearsal and the human relationships therein. How a director is feeling will directly affect their body, and that will in turn affect the sound.

People are good at reading visual cues (we are a social species and evolution has honed these capacities well), so if you are feeling frustrated, or distracted, or bored, people will see it even if you are trying to pretend otherwise. Likewise, if you fundamentally like your singers and care about them, they will know that too.

This human, interactional context for the exercise of musical skills also showed through his coaching. He worked with a number of directors leading both warm-ups and directing songs, honing the detail of their rehearsal technique. On more than one occasion he noted minor errors on a director’s part (missing a wrong note, giving an unclear instruction, failing to offer recognition), but also noted that the singers were willing to forgive these mistakes because we liked and trusted the director.

Given that directors are, on the whole, human beings, and therefore just as prone to making errors as the singers we work with, we need also to trust our singers with our imperfections. None of us grow without a safe space to be flawed, so just as we need to create that space for our chorus, so we need it for ourselves. Besides, if we want the singers to perform with honesty and openness, they need a director who also allows themselves to be vulnerable.

There were strong resonances in Donny’s approach with Choice Theory. It’s not just the principle that the only person’s behaviour you can control is your own, so if there’s something in the choir’s performance that needs changing, the director needs to look to their own behaviour to make that change. It was also in the underlying principle that it is the quality of people’s relationships that determines their levels of happiness.

The thing that Donny didn’t spell out explicitly, though, is that the reason this matters is that if singers are fundamentally happy, it improves the tuning.

I still remember this whole body directing effect being demonstrated to me at a training weekend some years ago.
Instructor: "Now direct the chorus with your hands in your pockets."
Me: "What!"
Instructor: "Just start them singing then put you hands in you pockets"
Me: "Err, OK..."
[Chorus sings beautiful ballad complete with appropriate presentation]
Instructor: "Did they do what you wanted them to?"
Me: "Yes, they nearly all did!"
Instructor: "So how do you think they knew what you wanted?"
Me: (Making face of dawning realisation) "Ooo..."

Directing is mostly about telepathy :-)

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