Chorus and Director Coaching with Welwyn Harmony

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Warm-up pic: with coats, as the room is well-ventilated and it's January!Warm-up pic: with coats, as the room is well-ventilated and it's January!

Tuesday evening took me to Welwyn Garden City for the first of a series of sessions with Welwyn Harmony working with the chorus and their directing team together. There are all kinds of reasons why this kind of combined approach is useful, beyond the fact that both areas of focus are of value in themselves.

As a learning experience, a double focus gives both director and singers space to digest things, to work with a new idea or technique for a while without direct scrutiny. You actually get more total learning in this way: people are going to need some time to absorb and integrate the input anyway, so you can spend some of that processing time offering input to someone else, who will then have space to do their own processing when you switch focus back.

And seeing other people learn things is itself a powerful learning experience. It’s why putting two quartets in with one coach is a successful model, and why I like to do individual voice coaching with my chorus with two singers at a time. What you learn from doing can be different from what you learn by seeing and hearing others do.

But the primary value comes from working in the context of the ensemble as a team. How a group of singers use their voices is integrally connected with the conductor’s use of the self, whilst a conductor’s gestures always emerge in the context of the chorus sound. Working on both sides of this interdependent relationship simultaneously makes it easier for both to make changes that will take them in the direction they want to go.

From a coaching perspective, hearing the chorus response to gesture gives a depth and immediacy to the diagnostic process that is really helpful, particularly when you’re discovering a particular director’s superpower. Working with Welwyn’s MD Nickie James, you’d always notice that she has very graceful hands, but it was the chorus sound that revealed that she has a particular genius for nuance in the way she shapes a sustained note.

This is one of those things that gets labelled as ‘you can’t teach that’, though I’d say it’s more that you can’t teach it by approaching it through conducting technique. It is a function of musical thought – it shows up in the way she shaped a phrase when singing it to demonstrate too – and so if you wanted to develop the capacity in someone, you’d have to approach it via their sense of phrasing, as a function of musicianship rather than physical gesture. (Though of course, one may well use gesture in the process of helping people develop their sense of musical shape.)

Anyway, Nickie is already deeply interested in, and therefore nurturing of, the way notes develop through duration, so our primary technical task was to remove other movements that could draw attention away from the magic. In my choral conducting book I differentiated between ‘didactic’ and ‘musical’ gestures – those that give clear, direct instructions, and those that encapsulate complex holistic gestalts – and so our task was to wean both chorus and director off the dependence on didactic gestures to keep things going, in order to let the nuance show through more effectively.

The sheepdog function is a vital part of the conductor’s task, of course, particularly in contexts where the performers don’t know the music that well. But in a repertoire chorus, where people sing from memory and develop a deep familiarity with their repertoire, time spent directing traffic can reduce your opportunities to explore the more artistically interesting dimensions.

The directing team were very clear that inviting a coach in at this point was not just about specific skill-based support, but was also a statement of intent: moving beyond the recovery phase in which the mere fact of being able to sing together again is a triumph, back into a mode where there is some ambition to develop as a performing ensemble. There may still be rebuilding to be done in some areas to regain the consistency of level achieved pre-covid, but by setting their sights on excellence beyond mere recovery, they are signalling both confidence that those levels will be achieved and surpassed, and a sense of purpose to make it happen.

And in scheduling repeated visits, they signalled a commitment to an ongoing process. I am reminded of Daniel Coyle’s observation that one of the basic belonging needs people bring to a group is the sense that they have a future together. Committing to an ongoing process is good for the spirits as well as for the skills.

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