Director Coaching with Junction 14

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Adjusting the conducting plane:: "Hold your plate of music low enough that you can pile it high and still see over the profiteroles"Adjusting the conducting plane:: "Hold your plate of music low enough that you can pile it high and still see over the profiteroles"Thursday evening took me down to Milton Keynes to work with the directing team of Junction 14 chorus. Both MD Hannah and her assistant Debbie have been regular participants in LABBS director training events, but they were after the extra depth and personalisation you get from being coached as a director along with the singers you work with regularly. This bring not only more one-to-one time, but the chance to enrol the chorus into the process of developing their directors.

For the truism that what a director does is directly mirrored by the chorus is balanced by a less often articulated truth that much of what a director habitually does is shaped by their singers. There are all kinds of interesting co-dependencies between a conductor and their ensemble, some of which are really helpful, others counter-productive. You can re-set the latter more readily by working with both ends of the relationship at the same time.

In both parts of the rehearsal we spent about 2/3 with Debbie, then the final 3rd with Hannah, giving both the chance to have some reflection/processing time before coming back to continue. Having two sessions each also allowed us to build. In the first session we were largely looking at technique, adjusting what the body was doing to improve the sound, whereas in the second we could move on to thinking more about the director’s attention.

So, with Debbie, for instance, we removed mouthing the lyrics, and adjusted her gesture space and shape to bring it closer to the seat of her breath, while adding a little space between arms and body by giving her the feedback gadget of a tennis ball to hold in each armpit. (And a conversation about how that had been recommended for singers in the past led to a someone coming out with a sentence I really hadn’t expected to hear that night: ‘Everybody needs a pair of sweaty balls’. Ahem)

I then asked her to direct only the breath points. This was really tough for her at first. One of the ways she has been expressing her care and support for the chorus is in living every musical detail with them, and she told me in the break that when standing there not doing very much she started to feel like a fraud – like she needed to do something to justify her presence. At this moment, every reader who has ever done any conducting thinks, ‘Oh my, I’m with you, sister’.

But the thing you learn when you radically reduce your signalling is that the singers can actually do a lot of this for themselves. You discover the two or three bits where they either need more rehearsing (to remember to join a phrase together without a breath for instance) or do require a clear signal to coordinate a move. And the breaths become quieter and more musical when the director can give them more quality attention than they can when they’re doing everything all the time.

This work in the first session set us up for the fun that was to follow. Our second stint moved onto what Debbie was doing with her ears. We approached this initially through places where the melody moved around between parts. Instead of cueing these entries with a physical gesture, I asked her to make eye contact with someone in the section while they sang it.

This did two things. First, it gave moral support to the singers – you can only make meaningful eye contact with one person at once, but others in the section know when you are connecting with one of their own. (N.B. this is why visual cueing still works when a choir is in a scrambled stack rather than in sections.) And eye contact is one of the things that Debbie does very well, so this was really exploiting her strengths.

The second thing it did was help her to hear that musical detail more clearly, as the visual connection helped her ear into the sound. This was particularly apparent when we refined the process to make sure she had arrived with eye contact before the entry, so she was there and ready to live it with the section as they drew breath to sing it.

Having established the principle with primary melodic content, we then applied it to a moment where the basses had an embellishment that was quite low in their range. When, instead of directing with her hand, Debbie turned her attention to the section to listen out for it, she was rewarded with a more focused, pingier, and much more purposeful sound.

One of the things I love about these kinds of sessions is the perceptiveness of the comments that the singers come out with in response to the changes we’re making. One example on Thursday was the observation that whilst Debbie is always good at creating a friendly and supportive connection with the chorus, when she did less with her hands and more with her attention, they had the feeling that she was taking greater pleasure in what she was actually hearing.

For me, that’s one of the big take-aways for the session. As directors we always think we’re listening, but singers know when they’re really being heard.

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