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Compiling a Not-To-Do List at Avon Harmony

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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.

We started off by dealing with the instinct to mouth the words, and went straight to the nuclear option. The chorus were instructed that whenever they saw Mary mouthing the words, they were to stop singing. It doesn’t take many sudden silences to cure a director, and you can leave the game in place to deal with any relapses as the attention goes elsewhere.

We then dealt with a propensity to step forwards and backwards by having everyone stand on one leg. I learned this first as an exercise for singers, and it’s great for engaging the core and getting people standing actively rather than passively. But it’s also great for directors – not just does it deliver the same postural benefits as for singers, but it tells you directly when your gestures are unbalanced as they pull you over. It’s also impossible to wander about while doing it.

Interestingly, once we’d got Mary’s feet more rooted to the ground, there emerged a tendency to sway from side to side. I was reminded of that classic social psychology experiment in which people whose hands were tied down to prevent them gesturing as they spoke developed much more mobile facial expressions to compensate.

This tells us what all over-directors already know: the source of the movement isn’t merely a lack of control over our limbs, but a reflection of a whole-body approach to thinking in music. So removing the noise isn’t just a matter of addressing the extraneous movements, but a matter of reconfiguring musical thought into a more focused mode.

We had a strikingly successful example of this when trouble-shooting a bell-chord introduction to a song that had been rather hit-and-miss in its coordination. We put the crotchet beats into Mary’s right forefinger and had her focus making them really small and precise so that everyone could coordinate with them. When the attention of both director and chorus was focused on that single fingertip and its metric implications the rhythm likewise came into focus. And all the extraneous motion of head and body just disappeared with that distillation of musical thought.

The other most immediate success came through the coordination of breath at the start of songs. If all the singers breathe out together when pitch is given, the initial breath is both together and deep-set. If the director also breathes out with them, it removes all doubt about the timing between taking pitch and starting the song – everyone experiences the same physical need at the same time and thus share a mutually-understood natural pacing.

One of the bits of feedback from the singers at the end of the evening was that it felt like they had been given more responsibility through these processes. And I think that’s quite a perceptive way of looking at it: the over-director is usually someone who really cares about both music and singers and is trying to do everything for them. Clarifying the technique is in part a matter of delegating back to the singers as much of the routine stuff of musicking as possible, to free up the director’s brain for more artistic musical thought.

Mouthing the words is the archetypal example: lyrics are the chorus’s job, and the conductor needs to let them get on with it without micro-managing it. But it’s a similar dynamic when you get lots of body parts all trying to contribute to rhythm – it’s like having several people standing over you at work making helpful comments about what you’re doing. They mean well, but it can be confusing. You feel you can do a better job when you have more space to think.

And there is a great pay-off for the director when you calm down physically and let go mentally of this eagerness to do everything. You can hear much more clearly what is actually going on. A director only has the one brain; it is a waste to squander it on things the singers can do for themselves, and you can serve your singers more effectively by giving yourself more space to listen.

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