Guidance Notes on Preparing Music to Direct

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I wrote these notes for delegates at the Directors Weekend I am working on for Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers. Those delegates will all have a session of hands-on coaching with a chorus, and I wanted to give them the best chance to go into that session well-prepared and therefore able to get the most out of it. But once I’d written the notes, I thought I may as well share them here, since they are valid - and I hope useful - for general music-making, not just for this event.

This is a description of what experienced directors typically do on meeting new music, although they may do a lot of it intuitively without laying it out on a checklist. I am listing it out systematically as an aid particularly for newer directors, but it’s also good for the more experienced to review what they do from time to time.

There are two main types of preparation you need, the first to inform your practical work of supporting the singers in learning and performing the song, and the second to inform your artistic work of making and communicating interpretive decisions.

Getting to know the music

  1. Learn all four parts. You don’t need to have them memorised, but you do need to know them well enough that you can demonstrate any passage fluently, expressively, and without interrupting the flow of rehearsal to remind yourself of the notes and words.
  2. Identify start and stop points every 8-12 bars, and make sure you can sing the start note for each part at each place. Hint: places where you find it easy to learn the start notes are also good places for your singers. Having this prepared will save you immense quantities of rehearsal time as you won’t always have to go back to the start.
  3. Work out where the breath points are for each part, and think through their consequences for how you direct, e.g.
    • Everyone breathing at once can be directed with one hand; breaths that are covered by other parts continuing to sing may need two hands
    • Places where some people might choose to put a breath, but you want joined together need the continuity explicitly signalled

    Sing through each part, directing the breath points to check it works for you. Anything you find counter-intuitive to gesture will be difficult for the chorus to sing, and will take up too much of your brain-space in rehearsal. Again, the goal is to be able to demonstrate fluently to any part that has a query.

  4. Identify the ‘moments’ - the details in each part that draw attention (embellishments, pick-ups, interesting word sounds). Practise anticipating these so that you have already made eye contact with the singers who have them at the moment the music gets there.
  5. Practise directing as you audiate (that is, hear the music in your mind’s ear). You will find that the more work you put in on items 1-4, the more clearly and easily the music sounds inside your head.

Developing your interpretation

  1. Do some research about the song. When and where was it written, for what purpose? Which singers have recorded it? Is there a standardised approach to its performance, or are the various versions very different? Does it always appear in one musical genre, or does it cross musical boundaries? Youtube is your friend here.
  2. Consider the song as a moment in a story. Who is singing it, and to whom? What kind of time and place is it set? Who would play the protagonist in a movie, and what would they be wearing?
  3. Identify the main musical strength of the arrangement: melody, rhythm, harmony or lyric. Which aspect of the song has the arranger featured as most memorable and distinctive?
  4. This in turn drives your general approach to delivery: rhythmic or rubato, driving or laid-back, intense or gentle.
  5. Test your ideas for 3 & 4 by playing with different styles of delivery. Some arrangements will accommodate a range of different approaches, while others really need a particular feel and pace to work. Often it will be the ‘moments’ that give you the clues one way or another.
  6. From these global decisions you can then work into the detail of how you want to shape the song.

Itemising the process as a to-do list makes it look sequential. But in fact many of these activities work in tandem. As you sing through the different parts to learn them, you will be starting to make decisions both about expressive shape and breath points. As you play with different styles of delivery, you are also practising audiation.

The other thing to note is that not all the work is done in your dedicated ‘now I’m going to work on music preparation’ sessions. You do need these sessions, but you’ll find a lot of the processing work - internalising the musical shape so it feels natural to you - will be done in the shower, or while gardening, or on your commute. This is why starting early is valuable: alternating study-time with absorption time gives you a deeper understanding of the music with fewer actual hours of specific preparation than cramming it all in the last few days before you need to face singers with it.

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