Conducting

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.

Rehearsing Remotely in Granite City

GCCmay21I spent Tuesday evening with my friends up at Granite City Chorus, as guest director for an evening’s rehearsal. Their MD Peter is currently on paternity leave, so they got this date with me in the diary some months ago so the Music Team who are running the rest of their rehearsals could look forward to having a break and the chance to be chorus members rather than leaders. Peter did pop in for a few minutes, but I didn’t get a screen-shot until after he had gone, so you’ll have to take my word for it that his baby looks adorable.

One of the things I reflected on afterwards was how in some ways it is an easier task to deputise for a rehearsal in an online mode compared to working in-person. Well, to start with, I wouldn’t pop up top Aberdeen for 90 mins from Birmingham in the normal run of things!

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.

Human Beings of the Atlantic Coast

Last Thursday took me zooming over to Portugal to lead a seminar on ‘Working with Human Beings’ with the students of the Atlantic Coast International Conducting Academy. Every time I work with a group of conductors I remark on the dedication and insight they collectively bring to the discussion, and this time I was also struck by their sense of shared ethos and values.

This is clearly in part a function of the course itself: course leader Luis Clemente spoke to me before we started about the goal to produce ‘responsible’ conductors. The contributions the participants made to discussions bore this out, showing not only a high level of thoughtfulness and care in how they were articulated, but also a shared philosophy that saw the ensemble as active artistic participants in the production of music, not just the conductor’s ‘instrument’.

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.

Gesture and Metaphor: Post-webinar Reflections

abcdsquareOn Saturday I presented a webinar for the Association of British Choral Directors on Gesture and Metaphor: How do Singers Know what we Mean? It was based on Part III of my choral conducting book and gave me a good reason to go back and re-engage with the nitty-gritty of concepts I’ve rather got used to taking for granted over the last decade. We had a great turnout, and, as usual when you get a room full of choral directors bringing their insights and experience together, some great thoughts emerging during the discussions.

Conducting, and Teaching Conducting, Online

The new multiple highlight function is great, but only if everyone has the newest version of the appThe new multiple highlight function is great, but only if everyone has the newest version of the app

On Saturday afternoon I spent an hour teaching a session on Basic Directing Skills as part of the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers’ eOnline programme. (As an aside, it’s a fab programme – really varied classes, and there have been a couple or three a week all summer.)

This is a set of skills I have taught many times over the years, but never previously in a situation in which you can’t use sound as part of the learning process. Which is rather the point of directing, isn’t it? The process at the heart of both teaching conducting and the act of conducting itself is to listen to what you’re getting back and adjust your own posture, gesture, and facial expressions to make it sound better.

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