The Belles of Three Spires

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Digging into the musical detail...Digging into the musical detail...

Wednesday took me off to Coventry to work with the Belles of Three Spires under their new director, Lucy Edmonds. New, perhaps, but clearly organised – Lucy had booked the coaching session several weeks before she was even due to take up the post.

I have reflected before on how you get different benefits from seeking coaching input at different phases in the learning of a piece: at the earlier stages more of the singers’ brains need to be tied up with remembering what they’re doing, which can be an obstacle, whilst at the later stage you are contending with more deeply ingrained habits, which is a different kind of obstacle.

We spent a fair chunk of the evening on a very new song.

So we had a certain amount stopping to untangle exactly what was supposed to be going on, but at the same time were able to engage processes for exploring the musical content of the piece right from the get-go. So often people focus at first just on learning their own parts, and only really come for air to notice what everyone else is doing once they feel confident with that. But as we demonstrated on Wednesday, if you spend time listening to and thinking about the other parts through the process of duetting, you gain confidence in your own much faster, as you have a much deeper and more holistic understanding of how it fits into the whole.

Another theme for the evening was supporting Lucy in her new role. As any conductor knows, there is so much going on when you run a rehearsal – so many things to listen for, so many needs to meet – that you rarely have any space left at all to notice what you’re actually doing yourself. This is true however much experience you have, but it is especially so when you are new in the role.

So we gave a good deal of attention to rehearsal processes that can help a director hone their conducting craft at the same time as supporting the singers in rehearsing the music. The key thing is to establish a feedback loop between director and singers so that the director can adjust their gesture and posture in response to the sounds they are evoking from the singers. Once the ear-gesture link is working effectively, conductor and choir can continue to develop each other in a process of mutual refinement and positive reinforcement.

Conductors and choirs unconsciously mirror each other as a matter of course, but you can use this at a conscious level in both directions to help build the conductor-choir bond. So, asking the singers to mimic if the director uses a particular mannerism brings it under control very quickly – and asking each to reflect on the difference it makes both to the sound and the feel of the voice cements awareness of the value of the change. Conversely, asking the singers to make a specific postural change at a particular point in the music helps the director remember to do so likewise when she might otherwise be caught up in managing the flow of the music.

The key thing, though, was to find rehearsal tactics that give time for the director to home in on the detail of the sound. Music flows by so quickly – indeed part of its emotional richness comes from the way it fills us with such fleeting colours and nuances that we can’t consciously notice each, so have to let our intuitive responses take over. But if we want to develop a skill, we need to slow things down and pare things down so we can give focused attention to the each individual element.

And you know what? This is invaluable not only for the director. A chorus that takes time to attend to specific moments and to notice how the harmonies work achieves two things. First, they fix all kinds of details of execution: vowel shape, balance, fine-tuning all sort themselves out without any further intervention. Second, the singers continue to listen more effectively and attentively beyond the small sections that have received this focused work. It’s almost as if musical awareness is a skill that improves with practice…

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