Old Friends and New at Harmony InSpires

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HImar16Harmony InSpires is a chorus with a special place in my heart, as they were the first group I coached - and therefore the subjects of my first blog post about coaching - after starting this website in 2008. Back then they had recently taken on their new name, and, though rapidly growing, were still a small chorus. They have continued to grow in both number and confidence, and it was lovely to see both some familiar faces on the risers, and lots of new recruits.

This was my first visit since their current director, Peter Cookson took over a couple of years ago, and he had asked me to come along to wear two specific, but distinct, coaching hats. One was my arranger’s hat, to work with them on a chart they commissioned last year, and are now just at that mostly-know-it-but-still-making-decisions-about-delivery stage. This is the perfect time for coaching on questions of shaping, trajectory, and overall intent, before anything gets too practised in.

The other hat was my conducting-coach hat. As Peter and I discussed with the chorus, when you’re engaged in directing, you have no bandwidth left to monitor your own conducting technique, so it can be very useful for the director every so often to have some direct focus on the detail of how they are using gesture to communicate. And it’s useful to do this with their singers, for two reasons: to give the singers a greater insight into the developing gestural language and to enrol them in the process. Asking the chorus to mirror an unconscious habit is the simplest and most efficient way I know to bring it under conscious control.

Much of the work we did on conducting technique was about increasing salience. This largely involves removing distractions so that the specific motion that carries meaning garners attention most directly. There were two details of technique that emerged as particularly useful and that I’d like therefore to reflect on here.

The first was about directing fast music. If the chorus is singing slower than the conductor would like the music to go, the temptation is to increase the size and energy in the gestures - effectively to make the gestures ‘louder’. But the faster the music, the smaller the gesture needs to be, in order to reduce the time it takes for the hand to travel from beat to beat. It takes longer for your hand to move 10 inches than it does to move 2.

That is a useful thing to think about in itself, but I also wanted to share a cunning trick I used in introducing it. To make the principle clear, I directed the chorus to come in using three different sizes of up-beat to set three different tempi: one quite quick, one slower, one very fast. I then handed the chorus back to Peter, who got exactly the tempo he wanted first time. The point here was partly having all the singers understand what to expect from their director, but the means of doing this was also part of the process. By having everyone sing at a range of different tempos, I had moved them off their established habits - in Kotter’s terms, I had unfrozen them - to enable them to operate different tempi at will.

The second detail of technique was the use of gaze behaviour in cueing. There was a moment in the song we were working with where the basses came in with the melody after a key change, and each time it was just taking a note or two to settle. The notes and rhythms were all correct, but the sense of sweep and panache the passage needed took a moment to kick in. So I asked Peter to make sure he was looking at the basses before the key change so that he could smile at them as they started the melody. The sound was transformed: all it had needed was the director’s attention early enough for the singers to feel ready and solidly prepared.

Two questions emerged as we played with this. The first was: why cueing with eye contact rather than gesture? To which the answer was that the singers didn’t need information about when to sing (they clearly knew this already), but they sang better with the moral support of the conductor’s gaze. The other was, how it would work when the singers weren’t standing in parts? The answer here was that so long as he made the appropriate connection with someone in the section, the rest of the section would see and know he was with them. He couldn’t, after all, make direct eye contact with all of them when they were standing together, but they still knew.

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