Choral

Basic Conducting Skills with abcd

Our venue for the day: Polish Millenium HouseOur venue for the day: Polish Millenium HouseI spent Saturday in central Birmingham leading a one-day course in basic conducting skills for the Association of British Choral Directors. We had participants representing a wonderful range of choral backgrounds – school choirs, church choirs, barbershop choruses, community choirs of various flavours, musical theatre, chamber choirs, a composer wanting to direct her own work. I had worried a little about meeting everyone’s needs, but in fact the breadth was very useful as it meant that nobody felt like the odd one out in terms of background or activity.

One of the things I particularly enjoy about teaching for the abcd is the way our courses are resolutely practical. Yes, there are topics that need discussion – repertoire choice, rehearsal planning, leadership and people skills – but the hand skills that are both central to and unique to conducting remain at the heart of what we do. Every participant has the opportunity to be coached as they lead the rest of the group in song, and everyone subsequently has the opportunity to review video footage of all the coaching sessions to aid their reflection and onward development.

BABS Directors Academy 2018

Donny and Amy introduce the weekendDonny and Amy introduce the weekend

One of the perks of my new role as MD of the Telfordaires is that I get to attend the annual training event that the run for their chorus directors. As you might imagine, it is the kind of occasion that fills your notebook with ideas to unashamedly steal, (or, shared best practices if you like to sound grown-up), and I’m sure my posts over the coming months will have many opportunities to refer back to it.

For today, though, I’d like to reflect on the opening session led by our primary guest educator, Donny Rose, who is the Education Director for the Barbershop Harmony Society. (We also had input from Amy Rose, who was there wearing two hats – as co-coach with Donny, and as social media expert for the BHS.)

On Saying the Same Things Every Week

Every so often you will hear a choral director express frustration at ‘having to say the same things every week’. And I’m sure that sentence has many heads nodding in sympathy. It is disheartening to keep having to cover the same ground over and over again, when you want to be moving forward.

But, here’s the thing. If we’re saying the same thing each time, and each time the change we want to make disappears between rehearsals, then saying that thing isn’t working. The problem is not necessarily the choir’s idiocy, the problem is the ineffectiveness of the method we’re choosing to use with them. Well, the choir may be idiots (aren’t we all in our way?), but it’s still up to the director to find a method that will work on their particular brand of idiocy.

Rehearsal Vocabulary: To Try or Not to Try?

In the imperfect and work-in-progress world of the choral rehearsal, people spend much of their time trying to do things. That is a given. But it is worth reflecting on how, as directors, we use the word ‘try’ when giving our instructions. There are certain circumstances where it is a genuinely helpful word to use, and others where it is actively counter-productive.

I’m writing about this because, as is so often in the life of a coach, giving someone some advice about this has got me self-monitoring avidly to see if I am actually doing what I suggested he did!

The thing about the word ‘try’ is that it gives permission to fail. Once you have lived with that thought a while, you find that the things you ask singers to do in rehearsal fall quite neatly into those where it helps to gives that permission, and those where it doesn’t.

Make Our Garden Grow

Some years ago, I participated in Birmingham Opera Company’s production of Candide, and one of the abidingly inspirational memories it left is of the final chorus, ‘Make Our Garden Grow’. You get the sense of the musical lushness from this extract, but you need the full context of the opera’s moral journey to get the full effect.

At the time, I was a novice and intermittent gardener. In fact, I seem to recall that quite a lot of our overwintering plants perished through lack of water in an unusually dry January and February while we were busy rehearsing for the show. But as I have grown in experience and confidence in my relationship with plants, the ethical resonances of that piece has stayed at the back of my mind.

It came to the front of my mind recently, what with some good weather to get out amongst the plants, and gardening being a good activity when you have some thinking to do. It struck me that as an activity, it is an excellent metaphor for Choice Theory. You can’t force a plant to grow, all you can do is endeavour to create an environment in which it will flourish. And since my primary reason for thinking about Choice Theory was its implications for directing a choir, I got to mulling on gardening as a metaphor for this too.

On Building an Emotionally Resilient Choir

This is a theme I mentioned in relation to the session at the LABBS Directors Day in July, but there wasn’t space to expand on it that post. It was a session I included in the programme after having had several conversations during the spring that included reports of singers feeling anxious about the LABBS Convention in October.

Now, performance nerves is one thing (and something we can help with!), but worrying about an event several months in advance is just not how the world should be. People join choirs as a way to escape from the stresses of life, not to gain whole new areas of stress. Besides, fretting is terrible for pitch retention.

The Choral Director’s Golden Triangle

Director's Triangle

There’s a useful concept in project management of the Golden Triangle. It is formed by three aspects of any project: Scope (how much it covers), Time (how long it will take to complete), and Resource (both human and physical – what you need to complete it, and therefore how much it will cost).

The point of the triangle is that your plan will quantify all three, but in practice you will probably only be able to control two of them. So, when real life inevitably starts to depart from what you’d planned (inevitably because projects are by definition things you don’t do regularly so inherently subject to unforeseen circumstances), one or other of these three is going to slip.

On Rational and Experiential Objectives

One of the Really Useful Concepts (so useful it needed Gratuitous Capitalisation) that I acquired at my recent course on facilitation skills was the distinction between rational and experiential objectives. It is one of those concepts that is so simple when it is pointed out to you, and in fact describes something you do anyway, but when given a label allows you to do things on purpose to be more effective.

Your rational objective for a workshop or consultation, or indeed for a rehearsal, lesson or practice session, is what you want to achieve by the time you finish. Anyone who has written course materials in higher education is fully familiar with this idea. You spend a lot of your time writing the back end of sentences that start, ‘On successful completion of this module, students will be able to…’.

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