LABBS Directors Day: Reflections on the Coaching Model

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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.

The model was based around participants in a small group taking it in turns to direct each other in singing very simple musical elements – single notes in the first instance - with the focus on listening out for how changes to what you do with your body affects the sound. I have been using this idea in teaching basic directing skills for some years, and the idea to use it for everyone came from observing how Mo Field used essentially the same method with advanced directors at LABBS Harmony College in 2019.

The great thing about it as an approach, indeed, is that it is by definition customised to whatever level of skill a conductor is currently working at. (Like the dip in the ground that is coincidentally exactly the right size and shape for the puddle that lies in it.) It was a thrill to use it with our faculty of experienced and skilled directors – the nuance and responsiveness they brought to the process was deeply rewarding.

One of the things that working through it with them brought into focus for me was the ways in which it is different from how we might usually approach coaching conductors. Instead of being about giving feedback and suggestions for the learner to act upon, it works by guiding their ears – asking questions about what they’ve heard and/or giving them things to listen for in the sound and/or audiate in anticipation.

There are two dimensions to why this is important. One is about pace of learning. As we know, you build skill by repeated firing of the neurons that operate that skill: Do it, do it again, think about this and do it again, what did you hear? Right do it again, and again. Six repetitions with a couple of guiding questions gets a lot of learning done in a very short time. If you stop and solicit input from the other participants you dilute the process. Not only do use up time that could be used for more repetitions, you drastically increase the time between them, losing the myelin-building power of intensive use of the neural pathway.

The other derives from the point above about level. The conductor can only improve the effectiveness of their technique if they themselves can hear the difference. It doesn’t matter what someone else (whether coach or fellow participant) can see could be better, it is the feedback loop between ear and technique that will guide the conductor into a use of their self that elicits a better response from their singers. Our central question was: what can I do with my self that will make a difference to the sound?

We gave ourselves the freedom to give some direct instruction if someone was really floundering, but since the event was for people who are already in post as either front-line or assistant directors, we didn’t in the event need to do this very much. Instead, the coaching process was much more about deciding what would be a good question to ask.

I had given some sample questions along with suggested exercises in the material I’d prepared for the faculty, but the knack in using the model was in choosing which would be most useful at that moment. In directing people’s attention to specific aspects of even the simplest materials (breath, onset, tone quality, synchronisation, resonance) you activate the listening at whatever depth of perception that person can currently reach, and the opportunity to repeat the exercise several times in succession invites them to hear the difference between different iterations, and thus develop their perception of nuance.

I’ve always felt when I’ve used this kind of activity in the past that I emerge a better director myself – it makes me listen deeply as much as it asks it of those I teach. But the thing I noticed as the faculty workshopped the method together, taking it in turns to take on roles of coach and delegate, was that we also emerged as better coaches: more responsive, more learner-focused, more attentive to the needs of the moment. We couldn’t just reach into our educational toolboxes and pull out our trusty tried-and-tested techniques and apply them; we had to be much more present.

And I don’t know if this is a valid assumption or just wishful thinking, but I’ve always felt confident that learning has been going on in for everyone present when I emerge from teaching feeling like I too have grown.

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