Conducting

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.

Self-Confidence and Self-Talk

I have been thinking recently a good deal about self-belief and conquering the demon of Impostor Syndrome. It is something that many choral leaders grapple with on and off, not just when they are new and inexperienced, but throughout their lives. It is like a chronic condition that you get under control for a good long time, and then something triggers a flare-up just when you were least expecting it.

And it’s something that mostly people deal with alone. The lovely thing about working with choirs is that you always have company in your music-making. But if you’re worried that you are letting your singers down, or that they aren’t satisfied with your efforts, you are immediately isolated from what is usually one of your primary support networks.

So this post is partly to say: you’re not alone. Many people feel like this. And you’re doing fine. The fact that you feel responsible to your ensemble and care about their experience shows that you are on the case. It’s the people who never doubt their wonderfulness who should (but don’t) worry.

Notes for Female Directors of Male Choruses

Linda Corcoran sets a good exampleLinda Corcoran sets a good example

Actually, directors of any gender, and of any kind of choir can follow this advice to good effect, but I am highlighting that particular profile for two reasons. Firstly because the gender norms of personal presentation make it more likely for female than male directors to run into these issues, and secondly because if they are only directing male singers, they are less likely to get helpful feedback on them from within the group.

These are all simple things to get right once you notice them, but there’s no reason why everybody has to discover them the hard way. So, one of the purposes of this post is to have a resource to share periodically to help people make good decisions about stagewear.

So...What Do I Do With My Mouth?

The benefits for a choral director of not mouthing the words are something that I have explored on several occasions in this blog over the years. Let's assume for now that we've covered those points well enough to make the point; I'll append a list of those previous posts at the end here* for anyone who's not seen them yet. For today, our question is the perfectly reasonable one of what to do instead.

It was asked by a conductor I worked with recently who found himself at something of a loss about how to use his face once he stopped mouthing the words. My first thought when he said this, I have to say, was admiration and delight that he had taken the advice seriously and acted upon it rather than the more usual response of making cogent arguments about why it is hard to do so. My second thought was that it's a good question, and one that other directors who grapple with this element of technical control might also be interested in, and thus a prime candidate for a blog post.

ABCD Initial Course: Thoughts on Learning Structures

Justin Doyle's rather elegant illustrations of patternJustin Doyle's rather elegant illustrations of pattern

I spent Saturday up in Newcastle teaching conducting with Justin Doyle for the Association of British Choral Directors. This was the first of four full days, each a month apart, that makes up the abcd Initial Course. The course is very well established, though this is the first time it has run in this location and with this team. (The Newcastle course will also feature Martin Cook and Keith Orrell in future sessions.)

Regular readers will know that I like to think about the way the structure of events affects the learning experience, and there are several specific features of this course to reflect on in this context.

Old Friends and New at Harmony InSpires

HImar16Harmony InSpires is a chorus with a special place in my heart, as they were the first group I coached - and therefore the subjects of my first blog post about coaching - after starting this website in 2008. Back then they had recently taken on their new name, and, though rapidly growing, were still a small chorus. They have continued to grow in both number and confidence, and it was lovely to see both some familiar faces on the risers, and lots of new recruits.

This was my first visit since their current director, Peter Cookson took over a couple of years ago, and he had asked me to come along to wear two specific, but distinct, coaching hats. One was my arranger’s hat, to work with them on a chart they commissioned last year, and are now just at that mostly-know-it-but-still-making-decisions-about-delivery stage. This is the perfect time for coaching on questions of shaping, trajectory, and overall intent, before anything gets too practised in.

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