How to hear your choir more perceptively

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So we all know that the better we are at listening to our choirs in rehearsal, the better our diagnostic and rehearsal strategies can work. And we know all the standard strategies for building this skill: recording the rehearsal to analyse later; asking an assistant to conduct while we listen and coach; breaking the choir down into smaller sections to listen to the detail.

But there’s more to it that this, I think. I’m starting to suspect that the biggest barrier between the sounds the choir produces and the conductor’s brain is nothing to do with either ears or technical knowledge: it is the conductor’s own ego boundaries. The more the director holds themselves separate from their singers, the harder it is for them to get a really intuitive understanding of what’s going on in their hearts and their voices.

You can tell how high a director’s ego boundaries are by whether they refer to their choir as ‘we’ or ‘they’. A director who counts themselves as a part of the choir they work with is both less judgemental and less liable to take issues within the choir personally than one who sees themselves as separate. They will be more open to the idea that their own actions are implicated in the musical and vocal problems they hear, and thus (this is the important bit) more empowered to correct them.

A director who calls their choir ‘them’ is too busy protecting their own feelings to notice that they might be hurting their choir’s. They are using a distancing strategy that puts the blame for all the musical shortcomings on ‘them’ so as to avoid dealing with their own inadequacies.

I’m not saying that technical knowledge isn’t valuable, of course. Indeed, without technical categories, there’s nothing to fuel the analytical process. But analysis only tells you about results, about symptoms. If we want to understand causes, to move from analysis to diagnosis, then technical knowledge isn’t enough – we need to put ourselves on the line and indulge in empathy too.

This is a rich topic, Liz. Thank you for bringing it up.

A director's ego can do irreparable damage to a singer or an ensemble.

Some fragmented thoughts on this, on ways a director can do this:

*Choosing inappropriate literature rather than literature that is appropriate to the ensemble's abilities and personality
*Displaying anger or frustration because an ensemble doesn't come up to a standard rather that starting with where the ensemble is and raising them up step by step to that standard
*Feeling that the music is more important than the ensemble or each singer
*Not listening to their singers comments or taking the time to discern what is really being said
*Not intuiting the "mood" of the ensemble and adjusting the rehearsal process (Fighting rather than molding)

There are little things that directors might consider that can make a difference:
*Are there physical barriers between you and the ensemble that are unnecessary? Sometimes merely putting the music stand away or not directing from behind a keyboard makes a big difference in communication.
*What are your gestures really saying?
*What are your facial expressions, tone of voice, and other body language apart from gesture really saying?
*Are you invested in the music affectively (emotionally, "spiritually")?
*Have you really done your prep work, "dug deep" into the piece to make it your own or only following what you "know" or have done before or following another conductor's recording/performance? A corollary to that is, do you know the motivation, the subtext, etc. of the piece?
*How does the physical layout of the rehearsal space affect rehearsal?
Just an anecdote:
I always prepare a song "from scratch" every time I direct it. I have two "versions" of each piece I direct. One is marked up to the point of almost being unreadable with everything from relationships between the voices; harmonic analysis; alternate breathing; notes about the poetry, word meaning, and scansion; to form analysis, et al. The other copy is completely fresh and is the one I use in rehearsal. I will mark on it the discoveries of the rehearsal process.

One day a student came in while I was doing my score prep and looked at the colored lines and highlighting mess on the page. She was astonished.
"Ms. N!" she said. "What are you doing?"
"Just my score prep," I replied. We had a little discussion and I showed her my study scores of the pieces we were doing. In some cases, having more than one study score.
"I didn't know you did all that! I thought you were learning the pieces along with us."
I smiled and said, "I am learning the pieces along with you."


On the subject of conductor ego, I heard Ian Bostridge mention something related on the Lebrecht Interview on Radio 3 this week - performers feel, according to him, endlessly resentful of conductors because of just such a divide. A performer can make a terrible noise, but a conductor can always blame it on their ensemble rather than themselves. There's more to it than that, and it's such a fabulous interview I would definitely recommend it, if you've the time:

(and if you'd like it, I've got a copy)

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