Conducting

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.

Penny-Drop Moment

This is going to be a short one, but it deserves a post in its own right for the sense of revelation it afforded me when the idea plopped into my head.

One of the things I had been thinking about a good deal over the summer is keeping articulation small and precise, and in particular keeping the jaw at rest while singing. This is one of the things that Sean Bui worked on with the Telfordaires in June when he came to us for a coaching session, and it has proved both transformative and challenging. Until we started applying this as a means to reduce tension and improve resonance, we hadn’t realised how much the chorus had been accustomed to experiencing muscular engagement as part of emotional intensity.

Exploring Character and Narrative in Norwich

NHsep18

I spent Saturday with my friends at Norwich Harmony further developing the contest set I had last worked with them on back in May. Unsurprisingly, given the elapsed time between visits, we could now build on the work we did last time on rhythm and harmony to explore how these elements contributed to the communicative dimensions of characterisation and story-telling.

We approached their up-tempo number as if it were a movie. Some songs strongly suggest a time, a place and even a filmic genre, and once you locate a song in this way, you have a common fund of imagery and associations that you can all draw on. One of the disadvantages of a cappella is that you don’t have a range of instrumental timbres to enhance the vividness of your performance; the commensurate advantage is that you have the imaginative freedom to build in opulent special effects to your concept without all the fuss of hiring an actual orchestra.

Less is Still More with Cleeve Harmony

Obligatory warm-up picObligatory warm-up picIt feels like cheating to use basically the same title for consecutive blog posts, but contriving something different would only make it less accurate.

Tuesday evening took me down towards Cheltenham to spend the evening with my friends at Cleeve Harmony. They had changed their rehearsal night from their usual Wednesday so I could come, as that is now also my own rehearsal night. (I will skip the occasional week with the Telfordaires, but not more than once a month and I had already used up my quota for high summer with Harmony University and – gasp – a week’s holiday.)

My remit for the evening was to focus primarily on the bigger-picture stuff, particularly the director and her assistant, but also with an eye and ear on the communicative impact of the music. Fortunately these are two things you can often do at once.

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