Conducting

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.

The Paradox of Conductors’ Leadership Styles

ICA course materialsICA course materialsThere is a fair amount written in the literature, both of conducting studies and leadership/management studies, about the leadership styles of conductors. People in business are a bit envious of the audible unanimity conductors elicit, and rather more envious of the glamour in the cultural images that surround them.

Musical studies tend instead to use concepts of leadership style taken from business to analyse conductor behaviour. The generalisation here is that once upon a time autocracy was the accepted norm, but that you are expected to be rather more polite these days. Phrases like ‘servant-leadership’ get bandied about.

Singing for Europe

On Saturday I headed down to London to participate with 100,000 or so other people in the Unite for Europe march, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome. As you may have seen from my blog past last month I had got involved in a group intending to spend the march singing, and had done some arrangements for the occasion.

What I wasn’t entirely expecting to happen was that I ended up leading this scratch choir for the whole of the day. It’s fine, I’m always happy to help people harmonise, but it was an interesting case study in how, in a fluid situation, people get assigned roles very quickly.

When Jonathan and I found our way to our assigned meeting place, there were probably no more than 10 people gathered from our group. (It was kind of hard to tell as there was a horde of Liberal Democrats passing through the same place - some of whom stopped to sing with us en route.) But there were clearly enough of us to have a crack at one of the songs, and it just happened to be me who gathered together the various thoughts floating about (let’s start with Ode to Joy, let’s do a verse of unison and then go into parts, let’s try out the online karaoke app that delivers lyrics to people’s phones), gave a key note and start note, and coordinated the start with Alan who was controlling the app.

The Conductors’ Four Questions

In my post last month on developing the director I wrote about the usefulness of having a regular appointment with yourself for structured work on a specified area for development. Today I’d like to talk about a set of questions that I give to conductors I work with to structure their reflective process.

  1. What did we achieve?
  2. How does everyone feel about themselves?
  3. What does the music need?
  4. What do the singers need?

To start, a few words about the choice and phrasing of the questions.

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