Back with the Belles

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I forsook my own chorus on Wednesday evening to visit my friends at the Belles of Three Spires. They were in a new venue since last time I coached them, and there were some new faces to see as well as some long-standing friends. We had a dual focus for the evening: work on a couple of my arrangements – one they had commissioned a while back, and another they have recently picked up – and to work on refining the conductor-choir bond.

This latter theme is one that a number of directors are grappling with at the moment – myself included. When we came back to live rehearsing after covid, it was worse of course – as was everything else – but it seems that for quite a few of us it improved organically to a certain extent, but then kind of stalled at a fairly generalised level. The result is music that has an overall sense of shape and shared purpose, but lacks the clarity of detail to really come to life.

Lucy, the Belles’ MD, spoke in similar terms to Jo at Fascinating Rhythm about how this emerges as a problem only after the first, more urgent work of post-pandemic repair has been done. As in so many areas of life, things look basically back to normal, except that we keep finding things we used to take for granted can no longer be assumed in the same way.

Bringing the conductor-choir connection into focus involves working with the team as a whole – as directors we usually need to clean up what we’re doing, but the singers also need to learn what to watch for to find the extra detail. It’s not that the singers aren’t watching the director (as they often get accused), it’s that they need to develop how they are watching.

The single most useful change we made on Wednesday was to clarify the exact spot on Lucy’s hand where she imagined the music to be. I asked everyone to sing as it this was the only part of Lucy they could see. This brought much greater precision to her gestures, as the musical intuition that had been diffused over her whole being was concentrated in a single point. It also focused the singers’ attention: now they knew where, specifically, to look, they found a lot more specific musical detail to respond to.

This sounds easier than it is in practice. Changing patterns of behaviour, particularly shared patterns, can be emotionally challenging as well cognitively. Fortunately, people only tend to engage on this kind of work when they already trust each other. And the pay-offs are often immediate and dramatic enough to be a commensurate reward for making the effort. In this instance, a whole bunch of things that I might otherwise have needed to coach, were now in Lucy’s control to sort out for herself. It is so much more efficient to deal with both technical and artistic matters within the flow of the music than by giving verbal instructions.

Sometimes when working with chorus and director together, you want to give the answers ahead of time. This musical effect is what the conductor wants to achieve with that gesture. Other times, it’s more useful to keep the intentions secret from the singers so the director can find out what exactly a change in gesture is achieving. Through this process we found that Lucy is starting to find ways to refine tone production with her hands. She also has great conscious command of a gesture that evokes a wonderful cello-like vibe from her basses – once we spotted it in one place, it transferred very effectively to other musical contexts.

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