Conducting

Practice Gadgets as Feedback Tools

The term ‘practice gadget’ is one coined by Daniel Coyle to refer to tactics people use to selectively increase the challenge of what they are working on. The archetypal example would be the way that the popular game of futsal trained up a generation of Brazilian football players, documented in his first book. Working on a smaller scale than soccer, and using a ball with significantly less bounce, futsal makes players work harder at ball-handling and team interaction, leading to a level of virtuosity that the larger, outdoor version of the game rarely fosters.

There is another dimension to the practice gadgets though, not just the amplification of challenge: they provide a feedback-rich experience. The physical interface with the activity talks back to you with a constant stream of information about how you’re getting on.

The Path Through the Trees

Today I am going to mull on an intriguing bit of advice Mo Field offered at LABBS Harmony College in April. She suggested that chorus directors show their singers ‘the path through the trees’. By this she meant that instead of focusing on the percussive events (the trees), we should give attention to the overall line of the music.

Now, traditional conducting technique is all about clarity - the director’s primary task is to keep everyone unambiguously together. Leonard Bernstein talked about this role as ‘glorified traffic cop’; I have been known to refer to it as the ‘sheepdog function’. On the face of it Mo’s advice would seem to directly contradict this received wisdom.

Adapting to Context on the abcd Conducting Skills Day

The group's analysis of the conductor's rolesThe group's analysis of the conductor's roles

Last Saturday gave me the treat of working in my home city, leading a Basic Conducting Skills day on behalf of the Association of British Choral Directors. I love events like these; the participants are always so engaged and dedicated to their singers, and so supportive to each other as they learn together. And they always come with such great questions, straight from coalface of practical problem-solving.

One of the things I found interesting about these questions was the way the answer so often included the caveat that best choice often depends on the context. The size of choir, the genre expectations and musical habits that come from them, the needs of that particular collective of singers. The decision about how to proceed then becomes a matter of figuring out the range of possibilities, and locating your particular circumstances within it.

Here are some of the subjects they raised:

LABBS Harmony College 2019

Arty long-shot of our central themeArty long-shot of our central themeEvery so often, the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers replaces its usual programme of regional education days and training events for chorus directors and quartets with a single grand shindig. The last Harmony College took place in 2016, to celebrate the organisation’s 40th birthday, and it was so well received that it was decided to programme them into the events cycle every three years.

Hence, 330 of us – mostly but not exclusively LABBS members – gathered together at Nottingham University last weekend. This was a significantly larger number than three years ago (to the extent that the organisation kept having to go back to the university to get more bedrooms allocated), so I don’t see Harmony College losing its place in the cycle any time soon.

Compiling a Not-To-Do List at Avon Harmony

Traditional warm-up action shotTraditional warm-up action shotThursday evening took me down to my friends at Avon Harmony to spend an evening working with their director, Mary Williams, on her conducting gesture. Mary has been in post about 15 months, and having got settled in building her working relationships with the chorus, is ready to give some headspace to her own technique. Specifically, she had asked me to help with clarity, removing the ‘noise’ from her gesture.

This is something that many if not most directors come back to time and again on their journey. I am a recovering over-director myself – mostly successfully so, but the temptation is always there if I relax my vigilance – so come to this with both great sympathy and some useful strategies to help.

Developing the Director at Three Spires Harmony

AprilTSHTuesday night took me over to Three Spires Harmony in Coventry to work primarily with their director, April Stevens. April is in her first post as a director, and having got a few months experience under her belt – getting to know the chorus, getting to know the music – she was ready for some specific input on her conducting technique.

Incidentally, April’s trajectory is an exemplary case study of what sociologist Robert Stebbins has termed a barbershop ‘career’. His point is that one of the things that marks a hobby out as ‘serious leisure’ is the way its structure offers opportunities for individuals to progress and develop over time.

So, like April, you can start out as a singer in a chorus, get promoted onto its music team, and from there be in a position to take on the directorship of another local chorus. In April’s case, this career progression is being explicitly supported by the director of the chorus she sings with, The Belles of Three Spires, and I am certain this mentoring has helped both chorus and director settle in together more readily. I just mention it in case anyone else wants to do likewise in similar circumstances.

Clarity of Concept, Clarity of Gesture

I recently had some correspondence with a director who asked me for feedback on her technique after I’d been working with her chorus, and it took us into territory that feels like other directors might also be interested in. So, I’m doing the further thinking about it I promised to do publicly here.

It started with an observation I made about how she came over in action:

I observe that when your musical concept is clearer, your gestures are more neat and precise and it takes less effort to communicate. So it may be that when you are finding the physical coordination more difficult, that is a signal that you need to clarify your musical concepts more. That is a working hypothesis rather than an absolute, but one which there is no downside to exploring.

She replied that she found this plausible, and that in fact it was sometimes developing the musical concept itself that presented the challenge:

LABBS Convention 2018

The White Rosettes during their monumental mic-cooling setThe White Rosettes during their monumental mic-cooling set

The last weekend in October is the traditional moment for the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers to hold their annual Convention. This year we were back in Harrogate, at the venue in which I experienced my very first one, 21 years ago. The Cheshire Chord Company won the chorus competition on that occasion too.

After the extravangzas of the last two years (the 40th anniversary Convention in 2016, and the European Convention last year), this years’ was always going to feel smaller. But the experience of that was a positive change: it was more intimate, easier to spend quality time with friends, less of a scrummage trying to get round the building.

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