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.

On Hypnagogia

Talking of not romanticising creativity makes me want to celebrate Sally Swain...Talking of not romanticising creativity makes me want to celebrate Sally Swain...Just sharing with you a nice penny-drop moment I had earlier in the year when a friend shared a short article on hypnagogia. No, I didn’t know the word previously either, but I was delighted to learn it, as when something has a word you know that other people share the experience of it too.

I had long been a bit perplexed that, whilst the standard descriptions of sleep phases placed REM sleep in the depths of the night, preceded and followed by deeper phases of sleep, I frequently experience involuntary rapid eye movements right at the edge of sleep - as I doze off or while waking up. This is sometimes, though not always, accompanied by light dreaming - and I can often wake myself up by being surprised at the dream images. Now I know this state is called hypnagogia, I can stop being perplexed by it.

Helping Red Rock Harmonise

Red Rock HarmonyLast weekend took me down to Teignmouth in Devon to work with Red Rock Harmony as they prepare for their first outing to the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers Convention in the autumn. The chorus is about five years old, but has only recently got to a point in their development when they felt like taking the leap into contest on a national stage. Some of their number have experienced this with other choruses, but many will be new in.

I arrived at the point where their convention songs were memorised reasonably confidently, but still needed bringing into focus in places. The chorus were pretty consistently singing the right notes, but not always with a full grasp of why those particular notes were there, so the chords weren’t always locking into true.

A More Helpful Post About Learning Tracks

Having been all grumpy at you again on the subject of teach tracks the other day, I thought it might be nice to make some positive suggestions about ways you can use them. The following three ideas are intended to preserve all the benefits that people identify whenever I go off on one of my grumps, whilst avoiding or at least mitigating the downsides I get grumpy about. These remarks are primarily aimed at the chorus director, but they will have some relevance also for individual singers, and indeed people for who make the tracks.

Do Your Prep Before Issuing the Tracks

If you put in the groundwork on the music before you let the singers loose on the tracks, you give yourself the opportunity to identify what the challenges are and put in the support your singers need before they spend three weeks practising all the obvious mistakes. If you wait to start your own prep until the singers start theirs, you won’t know what kind of messes they are likely to be getting themselves into until they are already well into those messes. Get ahead of them, and you can make sure they have the key skills they’ll for the song before they have to apply them.

Soapbox: Back on Teach Tracks

Before you read this: I know everyone will hate me by the end of this post. So I'd like you to know a more helpful one is coming up next time

I know, I know, I have something of a downer on the whole thing of learning tracks, we’ve been here before. Though actually it’s not so much the tracks themselves that I have an issue with - even I am not so churlish as to deny their various usefulnesses - but with the lazy and unhelpful habits they facilitate in people who should know better. Today my gripe is with arrangers and chorus directors who don’t bother to do their jobs properly and expect teach tracks to take up the slack.

The fundamental point (and I had better get this out before I annoy everyone too much!) is that parrot-fashion mimicry is not the same as learning. And that even accurate mimicry is not possible if your brain hasn’t grasped the meaning of what you’re copying. You know how it’s hard to catch someone’s name if they’re from a country whose language you’re not familiar with? It’s like that. ‘Learning the dots’ has to involve making sense of the music if it is to succeed, and this is no more guaranteed through listening than it is through reading. We sing what we understand, not what we hear; and if we don’t understand it, we make inferences that may or may not end up being valid in the context of the whole.

Conversation Repair, Musicking Repair

You know when an acquaintance makes a comment that gets you thinking on and off for some months? I had one of those moments back in December and have been seeing new things in my music-making ever since. Her comment was about how she had always felt musical performance to be a high-pressure activity, as there was the imperative to keep going at all costs. She contrasted this with activities such as conversation in which people are constantly making mistakes and fixing them; conversation repair is part of the collaborative endeavour of interaction.

Now, I certainly recognised that sense of pressure she identified as something that probably also contribution to my own struggles with performance anxiety through youth and early adulthood. But I also recognised her description of conversation repair as something musicians do all the time in rehearsal (and, indeed, in performance).

Just Peachy Coaching

justpeachyContinuing the contest-preparation season, I had a visit on Monday from Just Peachy quartet, also gearing up to LABBS prelims in June. This is a new quartet in several senses - not only have they been singing together for only 6 months, but only one has previous quartet experience, and two of them are also very new to barbershop singing. It is most exciting to help people at these early stages of their journey!

(Oh, and for the numerate amongst you, the fifth person is an extra baritone, Helen, who will be kindly standing in so they can compete despite availability difficulties.)

Something I first noticed teaching piano 20 years ago is that when people come along having identified something they’d like help with, they’re often more than halfway there with that particular challenge. The fact they ask about it signals that they are aware of the need for attention and have already been working on it. There may be things that they’ve not yet put their minds to where I can actually make more of a difference.

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