Coaching and the Conductor-Choir Bond

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Unmasked for the photocall!Unmasked for the photocall!On Wednesday I had my first live coaching experience since the start of Covid, when Andy Allen from Hallmark of Harmony came to work the Telfordaires. It was such a treat to have the input from a fresh consciousness after all this time, and it gave us all a real lift. And the experience got me reflecting on the ways a coach affects the intra-musical interactions of director and singers.

Those who have read my second book will know a good deal about my research into the nature and operation of the conductor-choir bond already; it is also a theme that runs through this blog over the years. But I don’t often write about it from the inside, from the first-hand experience of the conductor.

Central to the experience of conducting is, for me, that sense of holding the music in my hands. There is a connection between ear and gesture that is both self-aware and intuitive. By which I mean that I spend a lot of the time in rehearsal (and, indeed, performance) focused on what I need to do with myself to meet the needs of the singers and/or the music. I’m not really sure how I know what to change, except that I can hear when I’ve got it right, and that constant aural feedback is what guides me. I experience this as an act of listening, rather than conducting: it feels like it’s my ears that bring the voices together into a coherent, balanced gestalt, and much of the creation of the ensemble sound occurs within the flow of the music.

When we think about inserting a coach into this relationship, there are two standard modes we consider. The first is where the coach works primarily with the conductor, suggesting adjustments to their posture and gesture, listening out for the effect on the resultant sound, and soliciting feedback from the singers about how their experience changes. I spend a lot of my life as a coach doing this.

The second is where the coach is working primarily with the singers, and the conductor adapts their gestures in response to the coaching content. There was certainly some of that going on in Andy’s session with us – he is a very gestural coach, and so it was a logical choice to allow the gestures he was encouraging in the singers to facilitate vocal and musical goals also to infiltrate my conducting.

But, as Andy worked with the singers, I discovered another impact which, whilst logically available, I’d not specifically noticed before. I’d been experiencing it for a while without having a full conversant awareness of what was going on when Andy made a comment that suddenly brought it into focus.

The comment was this: having just worked with the basses on changing how they sang a passage, he pointed out to the other parts that the context for what they were doing was now different, and that they’d need to change too. By changing how one part sang, he had changed the instrument for all parts.

And this suddenly made sense of why I’d felt I was having to work so much harder than usual to bring the sound into a coherent unit. As the singers changed how they sang, what I needed to do to keep things balanced and locked together also necessarily changed. And, because these changes originated from a separate consciousness from the usual participants in the gestalt, we all had to extend ourselves further than usual to incorporate this new world of imagination and action into our shared house of being.

Which is exactly why you bring in an external coach, of course, and why the whole evening felt so stimulating and refreshing. It brought into relief how the changes we make during a regular rehearsal feel more organic, as they arise from a shared history and within an ongoing shared experience.

But there were times when I felt I was failing to curate the gestalt as I should because there was more going on in the sound than I could integrate in real time. And it was a great feeling, a bit scary at times, but that’s where the growth happens. I recalled the late Roger Payne talking about how some choruses found it hard to embrace a little chaos en route to a new skill, how the need to keep things sounding good could be an obstacle to letting them sound better. It was interesting to be on the receiving end of that experience for a change, rather than being the person bringing in the creative disorder.

Anyways, if you’ve not had a coach in since your return to live rehearsing, think about booking one. You’ll have a nice time making music, you’ll learn new things, and if you’re lucky those will include things you hadn’t expected to learn.

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