Embracing our Superpowers with Fascinating Rhythm

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Warming up with clapping gamesWarming up with clapping games

On Thursday I went down to follow up on the session I did with Fascinating Rhythmand their director Jo Thorn back in February. They have spent the intervening 10 weeks or so embedding the shift in dynamic between conductor and chorus, and the singers reported feeling both more secure and more personally expressive now that Jo is doing less, but with greater precision and nuance.

We started off by building on this work by clarifying some of the ways to think about the conductor-choir bond. Rather than thinking in terms of Jo ‘displaying’ how the music needs to go, we thought in terms of the chorus throwing the music into her hands for her to shape. The singers experienced this as being given more ownership over the expression, while Jo developed a concept of the music as a ball of energy in her hands. This shift in attention away from what her body was doing to what she was doing with the music helped her both relax more and hear more.

For listening is Jo’s Superpower. She quickly found that the difference in chorus sound told her precisely when she had found her zone and when she had slipped back into ‘broadcast’ mode. We also explored how she can, when in her zone, make subtle holistic adjustments to the sound (balance, tuning, tone colour) just by focusing in on her ears. It is this kind of magic that inspired the research questions for my book on choral conducting, but you don’t need to know about mirror neurons to make it happen – indeed, thinking about exactly what you are doing is a good way to prevent it happening, you have to let go of yourself and move into the house of being created by the shared musical world.

Our second task was to explore the question: how does this mode of conductor-choir interaction work when you are rehearsing music you don’t yet know very well? Do the singers need more explicit ‘showing’ and didactic gestures to guide them through the music at this stage? At what point, and how then do you shift to the holistic musical zone we had been creating?

It’s a good question, and we approached it by playing with a song they don’t yet know very well. Jo was initially in ‘signalling’ mode for this, and on the second pass through a passage I suggested some large movements that she could probably drop immediately as they weren’t serving to add much useful information. Then, on the third pass, on a whim, we decided she should pretend the chorus did know the music and direct as she would for that.

The music immediately came alive and the feedback was also very interesting. People talked about how they felt more secure with the smaller gestures, and how they were more aware of the musical content and the meaning of the words. Perhaps we don’t need to approach the early stages didactically and can go straight to musical gestures?

As we moved onto the next passage, we discovered some caveats to that idea. How the music starts is paramount to successful coordination between director and singers. If people are uncertain about the start of a passage and hanging back to pick up their notes from others, it creates a drag and delay in the flow that is very hard to recover from. It is worth the investment of time to make sure everyone is secure on how they start and block the opening chord to ensure that everyone can step into the space together.

Another obstacle was where the singers had a significantly different set of expectations about the flow of the music from the director, in this case because they had been learning from tracks that shaped some phrases rather differently from how Jo wanted to direct it. This is less of an issue in music with regular rhythms (though tempo expectations can cause similar issues), but needs handling in anything that uses rubato. A direct, intimate connection between conductor and choir relies on a shared understanding of the music, allowing the singers to meet the gesture, rather than try to follow it.

This is where demonstration comes in usefully. It is much more efficient for a director to share their vision of shaping by singing it than by trying to change people’s ideas about the phrase mid-flow. (This is a particular musical instance of the Blue Paint problem I found myself reflecting on at the end of my last post.) I encouraged Jo to demonstrate as a performer, singing the phrase with the kind of gestures a singer would use. This is not just because she is a lovely singer and it is a delight to hear her, but because this approach helps share the concept of the phrase much more fully (another place where the research for my second book offered particular insights into the relationship between gesture and thought).

We ended the evening by returning to the theme of listening and how it is Jo’s superpower. She expressed a worry that sometimes, when she’s deep into her ears, she loses eye contact with the chorus. Obviously, eye contact is a useful part of our communication, and it would be off-putting not to use it, but equally the idea that we should be using it constantly strikes me as potentially counter-productive. We only have the one brain each, and if you want to dedicate your full cognitive resources to one sense, you naturally choose to stop attending to another.

And when a director is listening with great focus and intent, the singers never feel neglected; there is an intimacy in the way the voices and gestures feed each other in that conductor-choir connection that is like no other. There’s no need to distract ourselves with learned imperatives for one kind of contact when we are deep in another; we should rather choose to embrace our superpowers and get the most out of the musical experience we can.

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