The Conductor’s Body Parts

There’s an improvisation game called ‘Conducting’ I learned from my friend Steve Halfyard when we both taught musicianship at the Birmingham Conservatoire. One person acts as the ‘Conductor’ (you’ll see why the inverted commas in just a mo). Everyone else picks a part of the conductor’s body to follow, and decides what instrumental or vocal sound they will make when that body part moves. The conductor then starts moving experimentally to discover what sounds the different parts of the body elicits, and, as they figure this out, they can ‘play’ the corporate instrument.

It’s a great game. These days I use it when working with conductors, particularly novices who often need something to break the ice. But apart from loosening everyone up and getting them into the musically imaginative part of their heads, it is a brilliant way to draw attention to the fact that, as a conductor, all of you is visible.

Look! Look! Book! Book!

Paperbacks: though without the lovely cover pic on the barbershop one...Paperbacks: though without the lovely cover pic on the barbershop one...

The repetition in my title is for two reasons. First, because *both* of my books are now out in paperback. And second, because this was a surprise to me. The copies just arrived by post, without any prior communication from the publishers.

But a very pleasant surprise, I have to say. Both books came out originally in hardback, produced by an academic publisher which mostly focused on specialised material printed in small numbers and marketed primarily to libraries. As as an academic reader, this seemed perfectly normal to me. Most of my reading of specialist material takes place in (or from) libraries too. They are very useful amenities.

Choice Theory for Choral Directors 3: The Rehearsal as Solving Circle

GlasserThe Solving Circle is a technique that William Glasser developed in his work as a relationship counsellor. It is designed to get people out of that impasse where they are both complaining about each other’s behaviours and throwing blame about for the ill-feeling generated by their attempts to control each other. I am interested to see if it offers a useful model through which to conceptualise the choral rehearsal.

The principle of the Solving Circle is to create a space for the safe negotiation of differences. In Glasser’s formulation of marital therapy, there are three entities within the circle: the two spouses and the marriage itself. The ground rule for stepping into the circle is that, whilst you may each have strongly-held positions based on your individual needs, by stepping into the circle you agree that the marriage takes precedence over those individual needs.

Choice Theory for Choral Directors 2: The Quality World

Having outlined the basic principles of William Glasser’s Choice Theory in my first post on the subject, I’d like to explore, in this one and the next, two key concepts that he uses in his analytical and therapeutic toolkit. Today’s is the notion of a person’s ‘Quality World’. This is the internal picture each person maintains of what they believe to represent the best way to satisfy their basic needs.

Glasser divides the content of this personal world into three categories:

(1) the people we most want to be with, (2) the things we most want to own or experience, and (3) the ideas or systems of belief that govern much of our behavior.

Self-Talk: A Practical Project

This is a post written for a particular set of people whom I’d like to help, arising out of a specific form of language I heard in their midst on a particular occasion. But it could have been written for all kinds of other people on different days - it is a very normal turn of phrase. So I’m sharing with the world to help anyone else who finds themselves using it.

Self-talk refers to the language we use to process our own experience of doing something (in our context, making music, though it applies also to all kinds of other skilled activities). It can refer to either the directed, purposeful instructions we give ourselves as we do it, or to the ways we process and frame our experience as we reflect on it. Hence, our choice of vocabulary for our self-talk has a significant impact on how we go about deploying our skills, and how we feel about ourselves as we do it.

The bit of self-talk we are going to focus on today is starting a sentence, ‘I struggle with...’ The project is to replace it with the phrase, ‘I would like to be better at...’

Choice Theory for Choral Directors

GlasserI recently read William Glasser’s book Choice Theory at the suggestion of a friend, and it has been a thought-provoking exercise. There is a good deal in the book that is open to critique - to the extent that if I didn’t trust the judgement of the person who recommended it, I may not have bothered to finish it - but there is also a good deal of humane and sensible advice in it.

So, I’m glad I did persist with it, and I’m prepared likewise to cautiously recommend it in turn, with the caveat that you need to be able to cope with an argument that quite often overstates its case and makes unsubstantiated (indeed, unsubstantiatable) assertions. If you’re not sure you want to cope with that kind of thing, here’s a summary of what I learned from it...

Conducting Variable Metres

I mentioned recently an email with a couple of good, nitty-gritty questions about conducting technique. Having looked last time at how to wean an inexperienced choir onto needing only a single prep beat to come in on an anacrusis, today we’re onto a more complex conducting task:

How do you conduct something such as Gibbons Short Service, where there is no consistent number of beats to the bar?

This is an interesting question, as the available approaches are inflected by somewhat conflicting questions of technique, pragmatism and musical context.

I know conductors who would see the correct answer as: you change your conducting pattern every bar to give the right number of beats. And, whilst this is a sensible answer in that it will make sense to modern musicians accustomed to modern barring and modern beat patterns, I’m not sure it’s the most helpful answer to someone facing this challenge for the first time.

Conducting Anacruses

I recently received an email from a conductor I worked with earlier in the year with two really good questions. They thing I liked about them was that they were at one level nitty-gritty practical questions about the detail of what you do with your choir, and at another opened out into general principles with a much wider applicability than the specific technical instance he was asking about. Perfect blog-post material.

Here’s one of them:

Bringing in a less able group on an up beat has been problematic. Would you advise sticking to the proper method, and educating them, or take the line of least resistance and give them a down beat "for nothing"?

See what I mean? I’ll start with talking through the step-by-step process I’d use in this situation, then explain some of the thinking behind it, and then finish with some thoughts on the ‘line of least resistance’ dynamic, which pops up in so many different circumstances.

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