The Role of the Director

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At the directors’ day I led down in Saltash in October, we started our first session with a discussion of the primary purpose of the choral director. There are lots of things on the director’s to-do list, but it is useful to home in on the central end to which they are all means: to help the choir sing the music.

I was thinking about this again after watching the chorus contest at the LABBS Convention in Harrogate, particularly in the context of the barbershop performance tradition that sees the director turn around and become part of the presentation. Does this contribute to or distract from this central purpose, and in what ways?

So, there’s a clear and well-understood convention to how this works. If the director is facing the chorus, they are in their role *as* director, managing the performance but conceptually invisible to the audience. The audience can see them of course, but it is accepted that they are not there for the audience in this mode, but for the singers. When they turn around and show their face to the audience, this says, ‘Right, you can look at me now, I am here to entertain you.’

This happens most frequently in up-tempo numbers, where there is (a) more opportunity for the director to be visually interesting as there’s often lots of choreography going on, and (b) a regular rhythm that the director can start off and leave the chorus to manage. But Amersham Acappella’s breath-taking ballad in Harrogate also demonstrated that it can work in more flexible tempi too, as the whole chorus, including their director Helen Lappert, faced down the tiles to sing a section straight out to us.

When this results in a clean, effective performance, you couldn’t accuse the director of dereliction of duty. Rather, it is an act of trust: if they know the singers can do a good job without being directed, they can hand the music over to them. (Indeed, Mark Grindall performed this act of trust most explicitly by leaving the stage for the majority of Green Street Blues’s second song.)

I have some reservations, however, in the way it sometimes plays out. There are two things that are bothering me, and on the face of it they are quite different, but the process of trying to articulate them here is making me think they are more related than I first suspected.

So, the first thing that bothers me is when the choreographic whole is crafted such that the director becomes unavailable to the chorus at moments they are needed. This is particularly at moments of tempo change or great drama, such as the transition into the tag. A chorus can of course be trained to manage the tempo change by themselves, but if their director is any good - that is, if they have a positive effect on how the singers perform - then they’ll do a better job at transition points with them than without.

The second thing is when the presentation starts to become all about the director. I started off feeling that the problem was about the ego-display, that it suggested a need to be centre of attention for everybody all of the time rather at odds with the idea of the role as conceptually-invisible servant-leadership. But you know, those presentations which cast the director as central character aren’t usually dreamed up by the director, they are designed by the choreographer. So let’s not blame them on the directors’ egos.

However, they are still problematic in that they exacerbate the first problem. If the director’s participation in the schtick is as part of the chorus - if when they turn round they are part of the chorus-line rather than separate from it - there is much more flexibility for them to turn back and help the chorus when the music most needs it. If they are central to the narrative as a distinct character, then the big dramatic moments will need them available to the audience. There can be a direct conflict of interest, that is, between the needs of the singers and the needs of the presentation.

Because I’m the kind of music-oriented, singer-friendly person I am, I tend to think the singers should win that argument. I’m not saying choreographers should not feature the director in their designs, but I am saying I think those designs should recognise the key moments in the musical structure where the director will be of most use to the chorus and work around them. And if that means featuring someone else for the big reveal, then so be it.

There's another interesting angle on this which relates to who the chorus is singing to. More than often choruses sing to (or possibly through) their director, and if the director gets out of the way, they then have to work out who they are now singing to. A lot of people struggle with this when they are first have that experience as they feel exposed and perhaps unfocussed as a group.

Interestingly, if you keep doing it as a director, the chorus do get used to it, and handle it more naturally. Its good as it passed some responsibility back to the chorus to engage their audience and entertain.

I do it quite a bit with our guys, especially at smaller gigs when we're on the same level (without risers) as sometimes I feel a bit 'in the way'. I know some of them aren't completely comfortable with it ,and I'm convinced its the exposure issue that perturbs them. I'm always intrigued that when you get down the pub, they can turn on some wonderfully controlled performances with very little direction and losen up to be engaging entertainers.

Yes, good point, Andrew - take the director out and the chorus needs to figure out its focal point anew.

And there's a nice argument for going to the pub together - to develop natural performance skills!

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