As an interlude in my Bristol week, I spent Sunday over near Coventry with the Belles of Three Spires and their director Lucy Edmonds. This was the second of two full-day rehearsals for them, so they were very well into the groove. You could see a certain amount of tiredness, too, though this was mostly apparent at the start and end of the day; once we all got going the momentum of the process took over. And if they had to dig a bit deeper for mental stamina as we went on, that will return rewards in the coming weeks as they consolidate the weekend’s work.
As with my last visit, I was in a dual role of both working with the chorus and with the director. But the balance this time was much more director-focused. As the day went on we developed a working method whereby I was coaching the chorus primarily via Lucy’s posture and gesture. Our goal was to see how much positive change in their performance we could achieve via adjusting the directing technique rather than giving instructions to the singers.
Our first area to work on was clarity of ictus. The chorus were making a clear and vibrant sound in Lucy’s hands within the durations of vowels, but the boundaries between words were not always as clean as they might be. We identified a slight hesitation in the approach to the ictus that was inhibiting the singers’ capacity to anticipate and thus meet the ictus’s arrival. A more positive arrival produced a better synchronised sound.
This hesitancy of gesture had its origin, in part, in a desire not to make the ictus too hard for the music. (As William Ehmann puts it, it is all too easy to ‘beat the music to pieces’.) So we explored thinking of the ictus as an act of stroking rather than tapping, and this was a significant help in allowing Lucy to be clear without being heavy-handed.
Another issue was maintaining the integrity of tone during volume changes. (At this point, every choral director in the universe nods in sympathy. Or possibly sighs.) We have a general sense of method that bigger gestures indicate more sound, and smaller gestures mean sing quieter. That is easy enough to say, but it is all too easy for the sound to lose focus through a swell or to lose its body when hushed.
The solutions came in more than one dimension. At the level of technique, a growth gesture that brought the elbows up and out from the body tended to make the sound shallower rather than stronger; distorting the hang of the arm distorted the sound. One way to bring these gestures (and their associated sounds) back under control was to think of operating the arms from the small of the back rather than from the shoulders.
At another moment, when Lucy was experimenting with ways to control a diminuendo, I suggested that the answer to that question may not be in the arms. (That counts as probably the single most useful sentence I uttered all day.) When she shifted the role of supporting the sound into her own core, the gesture she had been using all along worked just fine.
As we got deeper into the process, I would sometimes ask Lucy to effect a specific change to the performance without telling the singers what she was trying to do, for example, making a particular breath-point silent. This was certainly a harder task than when they were primed to cooperate in the change that was needed – it took maybe three or four tries rather than one or two – but it was commensurately more rewarding, since Lucy could know that the differences were indeed the result of her technique.
We were also able, as we went on, to focus more on making changes through attention to musical intentions and listening for specific details rather than by conscious control of gesture. At one place, for instance, she was producing a wonderful tone from the melody line by means of an encouraging smile, and I suggested she also listen out for the love in the sound of a counter-melody. This brought out the extra detail without needing to do anything specific by way of gesture.
It is one of the most simultaneously humbling and empowering aspects of directing singers quite how much one’s own demeanour impacts on the way people sing, and it can be hard to accept how much power – for good or ill – is in our hands. But when you do accept the implications of that power, it is remarkable what you can start to achieve with it. And it is good to know that whenever a director makes a change that results in a musical result they like better, the singers are also guaranteed to report that it has become easier to sing.