Conducting

Letting the Music Out with Norwich Harmony

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I always dither over devising titles that could encapsulate a whole day’s work with a chorus and their director, but rarely more than this time. Joining the Dots with Norwich Harmony? Finding the Flow? Making Life Easier? Taking the Muscle Out? All of these would be true of our musical adventures together, which were deep and satisfying.

We had two songs to work on. One was relatively new to the chorus and was basically coming into shape, having got to the point where it would benefit from refinement of the detail. The other was established in the performing repertoire, but had rather got stuck; they had a vision of the kind of flow they wanted from it, but had been struggling to achieve it in practice.

Back with the Belles

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I forsook my own chorus on Wednesday evening to visit my friends at the Belles of Three Spires. They were in a new venue since last time I coached them, and there were some new faces to see as well as some long-standing friends. We had a dual focus for the evening: work on a couple of my arrangements – one they had commissioned a while back, and another they have recently picked up – and to work on refining the conductor-choir bond.

This latter theme is one that a number of directors are grappling with at the moment – myself included. When we came back to live rehearsing after covid, it was worse of course – as was everything else – but it seems that for quite a few of us it improved organically to a certain extent, but then kind of stalled at a fairly generalised level. The result is music that has an overall sense of shape and shared purpose, but lacks the clarity of detail to really come to life.

Refining the Conductor-Choir Bond with Fascinating Rhythm

FRfeb23When, as a coach, you participate in a process that sees a radical transformation, a real shift in skill level in a short time, it is tempting to feel like you are a superhero. But the real superheros on these occasions are the people who have made the leap. It is their combination of motivation, clarity about their needs, and trust in each other that sees the new skills crystalise as if out of a super-saturated solution. ‘Learning readiness’ is the key driver here, though the term itself doesn’t convey the magic of what it can achieve.

I spent last Thursday evening with Fascinating Rhythm, their director Jo Thorn having asked me to come down and work with them on refining the communication between conductor and singers. They were collectively finding themselves frustrated not to attain the clarity and precision they aspired to, and as the overall sound of the chorus improved, this need was coming more and more into focus.

How to Be an Engaging Conductor

I’ve been thinking on and off about something Jay Dougherty said in his session on rehearsal pacing at BABS Directors Academy in January, to which I had a classic ‘yes but…’ response. Always good for learning, these!

He made the point that if you want your rehearsal to keep moving, you need to be engaging. And if you don’t feel that you’re outgoing and energetic as a matter of course, this may require some acting, but that’s okay, it’s all part of the conductor’s role. Put some extra energy into your walk, make sure you vary your tone of voice, and everyone will be more alert and attentive.

At one level, this is very apt advice. A lacklustre demeanour will suck energy out of the room and will struggle to keep people focused. But at another, it has the potential to work out quite awkwardly for some people. Pretending to be Tigger when your personality is better suited to Owl could very easily come over as trying too hard and/or inauthentic (and thus not entirely to be trusted) – all of which would be counter-productive.

Getting Connected with Main Street Sound

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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

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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.

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