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Warming-up the Conductor-Choir Bond

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It feels strange writing about the intimate real-time contact between conductor gesture and choral sounds at a time when I have been unable to experience it for three months and will likely have to wait many more before I can experience it again. But there are some interesting notes sitting in my thinking book from earlier in the year and now is as good a time as any to reflect on them.

Sometimes when I’m visiting a chorus to coach, the director might ask me to take the warm-up. I’ll always oblige because I too enjoy watching other people lead warm-ups, seeing what they do and how they do them. Part of what they’re paying for when getting an outsider in is approaches they may not have thought of (the other part of course being validation of good things they do already).

But on one of these occasions, when I took the warm-up starting the second day of a two-day retreat, I noticed that when the director stepped back in to resume conducting the ensemble, they didn’t seem as well-connected as they had the day before. The miscues and stumbles were minor, but palpably disturbed both director and singers. And in stark contrast to the ease with which I had been guiding the group moments before.

In that moment I had a thundering penny-drop about the role of the warm-up in creating the conductor-choir bond. In my usual rubric for warm-up elements (body-breath-phonation-range-ear-brain-ensemble), the last three apply not just to the sounding members of the group (i.e. the singers) but also the gesturing member.

Warm-ups typically use simpler material than the repertoire to be rehearsed so that you can stop focusing on the ‘what’ of musical detail and think about the ‘how’ of using your instrument. They also use lots of repetition so that you can use your experience of each iteration to refine the next. These are ideal conditions for singers to get their eyes tuned in to the shape and pace of their conductor’s gestures, and for the conductor to get their ears tuned in to sound of the voices. When I am properly inside the sound, it always feels like the voices are shaping my gestures as much as my hands are shaping the sound.

Or, to put in the non-verbal communication studies terms I used to theorise the process in my second book, conductor and choir create an f-formation (a shared interactional space) by overlapping their transactional segments (the area in front of the body into which we gesture). Once this is established, they can enter into a state of inhabitance - ‘sharing the same house of being’ – in which they all have access to a collaborative imaginative space they have created together. This is what the drawing on my Helping Conductors page is intended to depict.

We do this intuitively as social beings, in much the same way we find ourselves moving beyond conventional pleasantries into engaging and meaningful conversations with people as we discover mutually interesting worldviews. So, whilst I had always noticed, when starting a warm-up with an unfamiliar choir, that I didn’t yet have that implicit connection with them that I would have with singers I already knew, as we moved into the same house of being I stopped thinking about it and just focused on the substance of what we were doing together.

It took hearing the absence of that connection as I handed back after warming up that group I was visiting to make me realise that I had just spent 20 minutes getting the singers nicely connected to the inside of my head and now they were going to have to start all over again with someone else. And with more complex material. No wonder there was a bit of a crunching of mental gears for a few minutes until they found their way back to the house of being they usually shared.

My take-aways from this are, first, to cherish the warm-up process even more than I already did. Second, I will be more alert to managing things on coaching visits to make sure we build a house of being that includes both regular director and coach, whoever is leading the warm-up. Third, to suggest to those directors who choose to delegate their warm-ups that they likewise consider how they get their ear-hand-imagination system warmed up and installed into the ensemble efficiently.

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