Director Focus: Peter Kennedy

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When I was down with Green Street Blues last week, I was very interested to observe how their director, Peter Kennedy, worked with the chorus during the warm-up. The musical content was nothing you wouldn’t expect – vocalises first to ‘Vvv’, then to ‘va-va-va’, gradually expanding the range of the voices used. But there were two features of the way he went about them that were intelligently and effectively non-standard.

The first was that he really directed the warm-ups, shaping them with sufficient rubato that anyone who lapsed back into scales-as-autopilot would find themselves out of sync within a very few notes. This achieved several things: it warmed up the faculty of attention as well as the voices, it gave the chorus the chance to practice observing and interpreting Peter’s gestures, and it gave Peter the chance to practice his conducting technique.

Like any other kind of technique, directing is best honed in musically simple contexts, where you can hear very immediately the relationship between what you do with your body and the sounds it produces. And in the choral rehearsal, the place where you routinely have musically simple material is the vocal warm-ups – precisely so that the singers can focus on the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’. So, to make the warm-up play a double role for both vocal and directing technique was a canny move.

The second was a constant process of raising the chorus’s game. Any time there was a scrappy start or a careless vocal placement, Peter would stop them and challenge them to do better. John Bertalot has described rehearsing a choir as being like ‘pushing a man up a greasy pole’ – in that if you don’t keep pushing up, he will slide down. What we saw here was a determined and persistent upwards pressure. The warm-up was not just about the physical and mental readiness to sing, it was also about establishing level. I have no doubt that that this approach at the start of rehearsals has played a significant role in Green Street Blues’s marked improvement in performance over the last six months.

Having said that, one of the questions I came away with at the end of the day was how continuously you should use the rehearsal tactic of never letting the chorus continue after an imperfect start. There were times, when we were in exploratory mode with relatively new repertoire, where stopping the chorus and insisting on a certain minimum quality level of singing gave the chorus enough time to forget the point we were working on. My instinct in those cases would be to nail the primary learning point first, then go back and clean up the performance level once that was grasped.

This feels like a choral equivalent of the debate about spelling in school coursework. One side says that you should focus on what you want the child to have learned, and bellyaching over spelling when that’s not the primary goal is a distraction that gets in the way of learning. The other side points out that spelling is always visible whatever you write and if you get used to getting away with doing it badly you end up looking like an idiot. As ever in educational debates, both sides have a point.

But, back in the warm-up, the combination directorial control and standards-setting was a great way of setting the agenda for the rest of the day.

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