On Getting Out of the Way

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Sometimes you find a common theme emerging in a variety of different parts of your life, and it’s interesting to reflect on how the same principle plays out in different contexts.

While arranging

I’m looking at the most recent one first, as it was this that made me notice a pattern. I was working on an arrangement for barbershop contest, and was getting bogged down in chord choice. Everything sounded a bit mannered and awkward.

Eventually I thought to ask myself: if I were just arranging this as a song with no thought of style requirements, what would I do? And the natural chord choice revealed itself immediately. For sure, it was one of those permitted-but-less-conspicuously-ringy chords that the style guidelines discourage in excess, but it just sounded so much better than any of the other engineered solutions I had been playing with. And the right chord for the moment will always ring better on the voices in real time than a choice that is theoretically ringier but expressively counter-intuitive.

This reminded me of the value of just getting out of the way of the song. If a song worth making available for performance (which is what arranging is all about), it’s worth letting it shine through without distraction. This is a thought I have had before about various aspects of the arranging process, but it turns out I need to keep revisiting it.

At the piano

I was at a piano course in January in which a number of participants were encouraged to remove rubato and other shaping devices from their playing in a number of different contexts. Sometimes it was specifically about the initial presentation of a theme: let people hear it in it plain form first, so that when it comes back all gussied up (I paraphrase a bit here), the variations are more expressively salient. Sometimes it was as a discovery device: once you remove everything you’ve added from the music, it will become clearer what is actually needed, which may be less, or merely different, from what you have been doing.

I was struck by the rationales for this advice to play things straighter. So often classical instrumentalists are told to get out of the way in the name of the Werktreue aesthetic, which casts the performer as subservient to the composer’s vision, and – in its more virulent form of Texttreue - sees creative response by a performer to the music as uppity intrusion into the realms of genius where they have no business dabbling.

But getting out of the way of the music here wasn’t framed in such moralistic and repressive terms, rather as a pragmatic strategy to develop expressive clarity. And I liked a comment by one of the other course participants who remarked, after trying some Brahms in a quite literal tempo, ‘It makes it easier when you remove your self from the equation’. Getting out of the way of the music thus became a way for performers to take the pressure off themselves.

While conducting

I have already written about some of my recent experiences at the LABBS/BABS Directors Weekend, and in particular how getting into our ears facilitated a conducting style that was not only calmer, but also more nuanced and responsive.

But thinking about it in terms of ‘getting out of the way’ also reminded me of an exercise I recommended in my ‘Develop a Listening Gesture’ class: to start your chorus singing, then just sit down and listen. This quite literally and radically gets you out of the way, and works rather like the discovery process of playing it straight on the piano: it tells you how much your singers can do without you, and where they do actually need your help. It also is also rather humbling in that it reveals where they do a better job without you than with – revealing where you have been acting as one of their obstacles to success.

Some conductors like to do this in performance: start the music and then either leave the stage or join the performing unit. It not only signals great trust in the singers, but also makes sure that the director really commits to training the group thoroughly. I sometimes worry, however, that it can also signal that you’re not fundamentally there for them at the key moments in a choir’s life.

There’s the simple pragmatism that something might go wrong, and having a director on hand to coordinate the trouble-shooting in real time can be very helpful. And I have sometimes observed that an ensemble sounds better in those numbers where they are directed than in those where they are not – which is in fact a considerable compliment to the conductor.

I guess my ideal scenario would be to be there as a conductor in performance, but not to have to do very much with my hands. It helps to coordinate key structural moments and tempo changes, but beyond that it would be great just to live in the same house of being as the singers, listening deeply for the magic they create.

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