Cheshire Chord Coaching
Thursday took me up the M6 to Warrington for my second trip north-west in two days, this time to work with current LABBS chorus champions, Cheshire Chord Company. We were working on two songs at different stages of development - the first only recently off the page and thus still at a stage where it could be pulled around and played with considerably, the second a show-piece already in the performing repertoire where the task was to refine the execution of the vision.
The first song is directed by the chorus's assistant director, Andrea Day, and part of my remit was to help her work on her directing technique. In the event, nearly all the work on the shaping of the song came via the work with her. This was partly a tactical decision: making changes to your directing in real time in front of a chorus gives you plenty enough to do without also trying to integrate instructions about changing the musical shape of the performance.
But it was also a strategic decision. Andrea is a fine musician, and no doubt had a clear imaginative grasp of how she felt the song should go, so the most efficient mode of working would be to facilitate her in eliciting this imaginer performance with her gestures.
The first priority was to strip out a couple of habitual body movements that, while clearly related to musical structure, were causing a visual distraction and interrupting the flow of the phrase. Andrea adapted to this impressively quickly, and was rewarded with both a greater integrity of sound from the chorus and a greater sense of control over the music.
Then I invited her to imagine her ideal performance - its sound, its colour, its shape - and then to direct that with her eyes closed. One of the biggest challenges for a director is connecting the inner world of desired performance with the outer world of the actual sounds you are directing, and cutting off the visual channel - for some people - can free them up to do this.
Andrea is one of these people. The chorus responded with a whole new degree of warmth and subtlety in their tone, while Andrea's gestures became fluid and intuitive, full of musical shape rather than instructions to sing. The singers talked about the way they felt they were inside Andrea's head as she directed.
This is not to knock eye contact between a conductor and her singers. But ear contact is more important.
In the second half of the evening we had a whistle-stop tour through their medley of Candyman (from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and Candyman (as sung by Christina Aguilera), arranged by Alex Kaiserman. This was already well up and running, but there were still opportunities to make it sonically more vivid.
These are playful songs, and our first task was to bring out the way they were shaping the delivery of melody and lyric and amplify the characterisation. More energy in the consonants and a giggle in the vowels, and suddenly you got that brighter-than-life Disney feel.
It is also a playful arrangement, shaped with frequent fleeting changes of texture. We talked about the way that texture changes expressive register. Where more parts are singing the words together, the expression is more overt; where you have a melody accompanied by parts which aren't singing the words, the expression is more intimate. This generalises well to a cappella arrangements in a range of idioms, but in this instance required the singers to be faster on their feet mentally than many because of the frequent switches. But it does mean that your dynamic plan is written into the dots.
Both of these areas of work displayed one of the things that makes this a champion chorus - their capacity to take an idea and apply it. Each new concept took a couple of runs at a short passage to explore the nature of the changes we were making, but once they had grasped it, we hardly needed to 'work' the rest of the song at all with regard to that change, but could move onto the next one.