Conducting

Getting Connected with Main Street Sound

MainStSoundJun22

I spent Saturday up in York coaching Main Street Sound. We set the date almost 6 months ago, in the early stages of the UK's first Omicron wave, and looking back at the email thread, it was full of finger-crossing and hope. The capacity to make plans and feel confident you’ll be able to carry them out is something I never fully appreciated prior to Covid!

Andy Allen on Chorus Processes

On Saturday, Andy Allen was invited to present at the quarterly Forum for MDs of choruses in the British Association of Barbershop Singers. For those who don’t know him, Andy is the brains behind the renaissance of Hallmark of Harmony, a once-great chorus that had by the mid-2000s fallen some way from its previous heights, while still being haunted by the memories of those past achievements. Andy led their transformation back to glory from around 2012, and they are the reigning British male chorus champions from 2019.

Now, Andy is a fine musician, but the thing I admire him for most is his skill and insight into building organisational structures and processes that bring out the best in the people around him. Indeed, one could hypothesise that one of the reasons he has such good people around him is his knack for figuring out how they can best make their contributions: there’s nothing like feeling useful to motivate people to stay involved.

LABBS Directors Day: Reflections on the Coaching Model

Rita Hulands has a genius for capturing pics of people immersed in what they're doingRita Hulands has a genius for capturing pics of people immersed in what they're doing

One of the features of last weekend’s Directors Day was hands-on practical work for all delegates. Faculty-led classes are a useful part of director training, but for skills-based learning you actually need to do the thing to get better at it. I had actually lined the model we used up to deliver in 2020, but we didn’t get to use it then. But it was ideal for our needs in 2022, as it all about connecting ear to gesture – that central driver of effective conducting that had been absent through the Zoom era.

The faculty met together the night before to do our own practical work. This doubles as both our opportunity to experience some input on our own directing before spending the main event helping everyone else, and the chance to work through the model so we’re all confident to deliver it to others.

LABBS Directors Day 2022

dirday2022

Almost two years to the day since the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers last held an in-person education event, we gathered in Coventry on Saturday for a day of director training. We had a curriculum built round various aspects of the recovery process all choruses are going through at the moment, underpinned by practical work for all delegates that focused on the relationship between listening and conductor gesture. This is the central element of the conductor’s craft, and precisely what had been ripped out of the process during the whole Zoom era.

A recurrent theme in this blog after these kinds of events is the sense of coming home with a full note-book. That cliché becomes meaningful again after such an education drought. For sure, there have been all kinds of online events to attend as either leader or delegate, and I learned things from both types of participation, but the richness and depth of learning you get with a room full of people is just in another league. I had conversations with a number of people about how we’d got to the point last year where we were just running on empty, and how nourishing it felt to finally spend time in person with other directors. The full pages of our notebooks reflect the refilling of our spirits.

More Director Coaching with Welwyn Harmony

All warm-ups should have a big mirror to help you get more people in the picAll warm-ups should have a big mirror to help you get more people in the pic

On Tuesday I was back with my friends in Welwyn to continue supporting their director development plan. This time I spent a good chunk of the evening working with each of their two Assistant MDs as well as doing some more work on their contest ballad with their front-line director. I do like teaching models that give people the chance to both do the thing and observe others doing it; the combination of direct experience and having the space to observe the effects of changes seems to help people acquire skills more efficiently than either in isolation.

Some of our work was refining technique: stabilising stance to make less of a moving target, connecting gesture level to the seat of the breath (or the ‘yo-ho-ho’ region to refer back to a pirate-themed warm-up exercise). Becoming more purposeful about the role of the non-dominant hand was a useful development for both AMDs: by giving it less to do as default, and only using it (either as momentary mirror to the dominant hand or to do something different) when you have a particular musical reason drastically increases your expressive range. As I say about writing: some days you measure progress in how much you write, some days in how much you delete.

Chorus and Director Coaching with Welwyn Harmony

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.

Coaching and the Conductor-Choir Bond

Unmasked for the photocall!Unmasked for the photocall!On Wednesday I had my first live coaching experience since the start of Covid, when Andy Allen from Hallmark of Harmony came to work the Telfordaires. It was such a treat to have the input from a fresh consciousness after all this time, and it gave us all a real lift. And the experience got me reflecting on the ways a coach affects the intra-musical interactions of director and singers.

Those who have read my second book will know a good deal about my research into the nature and operation of the conductor-choir bond already; it is also a theme that runs through this blog over the years. But I don’t often write about it from the inside, from the first-hand experience of the conductor.

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.

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