Refining the Conductor-Choir Bond with Fascinating Rhythm

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FRfeb23When, as a coach, you participate in a process that sees a radical transformation, a real shift in skill level in a short time, it is tempting to feel like you are a superhero. But the real superheros on these occasions are the people who have made the leap. It is their combination of motivation, clarity about their needs, and trust in each other that sees the new skills crystalise as if out of a super-saturated solution. ‘Learning readiness’ is the key driver here, though the term itself doesn’t convey the magic of what it can achieve.

I spent last Thursday evening with Fascinating Rhythm, their director Jo Thorn having asked me to come down and work with them on refining the communication between conductor and singers. They were collectively finding themselves frustrated not to attain the clarity and precision they aspired to, and as the overall sound of the chorus improved, this need was coming more and more into focus.

It takes a huge amount of trust for a director to put themselves on the line like this with their own group, but it is such a good way to address this kind of question. Communication happens in the space between the conductor and ensemble, and our task was to explore both what Jo was doing and how the singers were reading that – working both ends at the same time allows each to make the adjustments they need effectively.

Our first task was to pare Jo’s movements down. Before you can work with the detail of conducting gesture, you need to be sure that what you’re hearing is a result of that gesture and not of any other communicative information the conductor might be showing. A lot of our expressive behaviours as directors (and Jo is very expressive indeed) can draw attention away from our hands. It is often effective in sharing the vision and feel of the music, and appreciated by the singers for this, but it also gets in the way of communicating specific detail.

This was our first transformation of the evening, and the hardest to make. It can feel – for both singers and conductor – like the emotional connection with the music and each other has been reduced. But it also offers all kinds of benefits: the conductor can work on a much smaller canvas, and thereby with much more nuance and control. The singers get both more clarity about to do, and a greater sense of ownership of the music. They’ll need to relearn how to be physically animated themselves without Jo modelling it, of course, but it will be worth it for the extra music they’re going to get out of their songs now.

Once we had everyone focused on Jo’s hands, we could start to work on what they were doing. There are two primary elements to conducting gesture. The ictus is the moment of the pulse, marked by a change in direction, and controls timing and synchronisation. The rebound is the line between these points and manages tone. We didn’t need to mess with Jo’s handling of tone, this is already one of her superpowers, but clarifying how she was making and using her ictus was key to unlocking the precision she sought.

Two specific refinements we worked on were identifying the specific point in Jo’s hand where she places her ictus, and then making sure that her arms were integrated from shoulder to fingertip so that she wasn’t making any subsidiary icti with e.g. her wrist. When we did my standard ‘Kermit Principle’ exercise to demonstrate the concept, I learned one of the secrets of her great tone – her arms are astonishingly free from extraneous tension.

I nearly entitled this blog post ‘Feeling Good with Fascinating Rhythm’, not just because it was a wonderful experience to help them find a new place where the chorus and director can go to grow together, but also after the song we used for quite a bit of our work. I had known the title ahead of time, but did not know until they started singing that it was my arrangement of the song. I hadn’t heard it since Magenta’s final concert in 2017, when I sang it in quartet, and in fact I’m not sure I’ve ever previously heard it sung by a group that doesn’t include me. It turns out that the 2009 Liz who arranged it knew what she was doing.

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