Choral

On Conducting Technique and Tracker Action

This is something of a niche metaphor, but it is nonetheless pretty appropriate for choral conductors, given that the relationship between choir and organ is so ingrained in British musical life as to be the title of a well-established magazine for the sector.

Tracker action is a type of mechanism for linking the keys on an organ to the pipes that make the sound. In modern organs, this is usually done electronically, but the traditional method was entirely mechanical, making the connection with a series of interlinked levers. A university friend of mine, who had spent some time as an organ builder after leaving school before returning to education, described the efficiency and responsiveness of a really good tracker action in words to this effect:

Imagine you are moving this pencil along a table. When you move this end [demonstrates], you don’t have to wait for the other end to follow.

Expecting the Unexpected with abcd

abcdsquareSaturday morning saw me presenting another in the series of webinars hosted by the Association of British Choral Directors, this time in collaboration with Kate Shipway, who had proposed the idea of exploring how people might respond emotionally to the return to live choral rehearsals.

Kate took our minds back to this time last year, when the discourse within choirs was framed in terms of ‘I can’t wait to get back to this, how happy we will be!’ A year on, and people’s attitudes are more mixed – along with the anticipation (and possibly unrealistic expectations), come the anxiety and trepidation associated with re-entry syndrome. And in the time since we last met regularly in person, we’ve all been through some degree of trauma: nature and extent of it varies a lot depending on our individual circumstances, but nobody remains untouched by the experiences of the last year.

Soapbox: How to Stop the Music

soapbox‘Wait! What?’ I hear you cry on reading that title. ‘Why do we want to stop the music?’ Then you remember that this blog talks quite a lot about the choral rehearsal and in that context actually you need to stop the music quite regularly so you can work on stuff. It’s very inefficient to carry on to the end every time, especially when the bit the singers need help with happens in bar 3.

The question arose in a Music Team training session about leading singers in small groups. We had discussed the two modes of leading the singing available, as a conductor, or as a member of the ensemble, and the parallels and differences between them. (Actually that could merit a blog post of its own one of these days.) We’d covered the process of starting the music in each mode, but hadn’t specifically addressed how to stop it.

The PandeMusic app and How You Can Help Ongoing Research into Covid and Music-Making

PandeMusicOn Thursday I attended a session for Association of British Choral Directors members on a new app called PandeMusic. They’ve not done a major launch yet because it is taking a while to get it into the Apple Store, but it is already available for Android – indeed I downloaded and had it up and running during the session, submitting my first report in less time than it took the presenters to explain it. So I don’t think it’s premature to tell everyone else about it.

The app is a collaboration between abcd and Making Music. It is the brainchild of Martin Ashley, who gave a presentation on what it does, and why, and was developed by John Willetts, who gave a demo of how to use it.

Gesture Height and Centre of Gravity

When teaching choral conducting we generally encourage people to use a gesture space in which their ictus lands not too far above their belly-button, as this tends to facilitate a deeper-seated breath in the singers. But sometimes the physical circumstances of your performing environment necessitate a higher gesture in order for it to be seen, and the question then becomes: how do you prevent this having a negative impact on vocal production?

This post was inspired by watching a video of someone who was managing this well.

On Conducting and Emotion

I had a really interesting conversation recently with a conductor I’ve been working with about the conductor’s experience of musical emotion. He was reflecting on how he feels all the music the conducts – and ‘still feels’ it in the case of very familiar repertoire – and was wondering to what extent he should allow himself to experience that while conducting. On one hand, the whole point of so much music is to shape our feelings, but on the other he didn’t want to be self-indulgent.

You won’t be surprised to know that from a standing start, I was all for allowing himself to connect emotionally with the music. The reason we started doing this and keep doing it, the reason the singers participate, the reason that listeners value what we do is this connection. Music offers a way to access rich and varied emotional landscapes that bind us together in shared experiences. Those leading the creation of those experiences both deserve and have an obligation to participate in them.

On Re-Expanding our Boundaries

I have been thinking a lot recently about a post I wrote some years ago on expanding our boundaries. There I was reflecting that if we don’t stretch ourselves, in terms of where we go, what we do, and who we meet, our capacities have a tendency to shrink to fit the restricted range we’ve been operating in.

That was of course written at a time when we could choose to travel or to take up new pastimes as ways of meeting new people. These are choices that have been severely curtailed for a year now, and as we in the UK contemplate our various regional roadmaps back out of lockdown, we are all feeling the emotional and psychological effects of not having been able to stretch in many of these dimensions for so long.

Greg Clancy on Singing Freely

I mentioned in my first post about BABS Directors Academy last month that I had a pile of notes about Greg’s thoughts on freedom in singing that deserved a post of their own in due course. The moment has come to revisit these and reflect on them.

This theme emerged when Greg was talking about the importance of the warm-up (something on which our hearts beat as one). His goal is to get the chorus in a certain spot, ‘vocally, mentally, spiritually,’ and will often undertake this himself. If you do delegate the warm-up, he added, you need to be sure that it is someone who really understands what you’re aiming for in this.

What I find so interesting with how Greg talks about his processes is that he so often starts with very practical matters – in this case, the Vocal Majority’s approach to vocal production – but these always connect into more holistic questions. So his discussion of how they focus on a sense of lift, both physically (cheeks, soft palate), and psychologically (imagine the sound coming from your hairline) morphed straight into considering the chorus’s emotional state.

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