Conducting

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.)

Bristol A Cappella: Next Steps

And this is why I chose that warm-up pic for my last post...And this is why I chose that warm-up pic for my last post...

Last time I worked with Bristol A Cappella, they were preparing for the mixed barbershop chorus contest at BABS Convention in May. This performance went very well, and they were rewarded with significantly higher scores than their first attempt the previous year. Buoyed up by this success, they are striding purposefully into the future with plans to participate in several competitions over the next six months or so.

The first of these is the Nailsea Festival later this month, in which they are entering two classes. This visit we revisited briefly their material from BABS for the barbershop class, but focused most of our efforts on a set of two songs, arranged and directed respectively by their director Iain Hallam and their assistant director, James Horsburgh.

Harmonic Charge, Voicing and Gesture

Right back in the early days of this blog I spent some time thinking about a set of related concepts in close-harmony arranging and performing: harmonic charge, its relationship with voicing, and – more esoterically – the latter’s relationship with vowel sounds.

I have gradually observed over the years that these concepts have specific implications for conducting gesture: harmonies with a higher inherent energy (harmonic charge and/or tighter voicing) need to be squeezed.

I notice this most clearly when in trouble-shooting mode as a coach. Directors will respond to the energy in these moments whether or not they have consciously analysed the chords, but they run into difficulties when they translate this into action by making their gestures bigger. On the face of it, that would be the standard thing to do, following the bigger=louder metaphor* that underpins traditional conducting technique.

A Dedication of Directors

Director Faculty in actionDirector Faculty in action

There was some discussion after last Saturday’s education day for LABBS chorus directors as to what the collective noun for directors was. We had lots of good suggestions, but I am going with ‘a dedication’ for now because of the way our delegates embraced the preparation we had set for the practical activities with such commitment, resulting in one of the most musically in-depth experiences I have yet managed to orchestrate in a single day.

The coaching model we used was devised, in the first instance, to answer the question as to how to offer practical skills training to lots of people with the resources we had available, You can teach a discussion-based class to a room of 70 people and it works, but hands-on skills need individual attention. In the process, it also answered another question of practical training I have been grappling with – how to develop directors’ musicianship skills. You can communicate ideas in a day, but musicianship takes ongoing work to flourish.

Carving Out an Interpretation with Red Rock Harmony

This shot just gives an inkling of the amazing rehearsal venueThis shot just gives an inkling of the amazing rehearsal venue

After my coaching sessions last week with Strictly A Cappella and Frisson, I headed down to Devon to work with my friends at Red Rock Harmony in Teignmouth. One of the things that is pleasing about repeat visits to a group is to hear how they have improved since you last heard them, and it was lovely to be able to remark on how much more vocally secure they are sounding than last autumn. And this was my third day in a row of groups with pitch integrity. It is a wonderful thing when you can trust the technique and just get on with the music.

For music was our task. The chorus are in the process of learning one of my arrangements, commissioned by another group a couple of years back, but as Red Rock Harmony have joined LABBS since its one and only previous contest performance, they are approaching it as if a brand new chart. My job was to work with them on the delivery, finding the fluidity flow of a barbershop ballad within the black-and-white dots on the page.

Belles of Three Sessions

Working on back width...Working on back width...I had an action-packed day on Saturday with the Belles of Three Spires, with three quite different types of coaching activity.

We started off with the kind of music coaching you’d expect as a matter of course at this stage of the rehearsal calendar. They are learning a new (to them) song to take to contest in the autumn, and I was there to help them bring out the musical shape and expressive detail.

They had asked me to come and work with them in particular because it happened to be one of my arrangements, but, interestingly, the coaching process is much the same as it is when I coach other people’s music. It’s still a process of identifying the role of various musical features in the overall narrative, to help the singers bring out texture and meaning. It’s just slightly more efficient, since for the parts where I think, ‘What’s going on there then?’ I have a pretty good idea already.

Coaching Micro and Macro with Capital Connection

CapCon17The weekend after my visit to Bristol A Cappella took me, first, down to London to work with my friends at Capital Connection. (The second part of my tour, to Norwich, follows in a subsequent post.) We were working on a contest package that they had originally planned for LABBS Convention 2016, but which they had subsequently decided needed a longer development phase, so they will be taking it to this year’s European Convention instead.

One of my hopes for this convention is that all our international visitors will think, ‘Gosh, they’re doing interesting music in LABBS,’ and Capital are contributing to this ambition with the contest premiere of an arrangement by their director Debi Cox. Coaching an arrangement directed by its arranger is strangely very like coaching any other arrangement – the same process of music analysis and performance diagnosis – except that when you point out to the singers, ‘That’s a nice bit of arranging there,’ the person you are praising actually gets to hear and appreciate the compliment.

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