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Getting into our Ears

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The theme for our recent joint LABBS/BABS Directors Weekend was ‘The Listening Director’. It was originally sparked by a request from a delegate at LABBS Harmony College directors stream last year for more work on diagnostic listening skills in rehearsal (initial response: yes that’s very important, let’s do more on it!), and then kind of snowballed from there.

The more you think about the ways and contexts in which chorus directors have to listen, the more it asserts itself as the central skill of the job. It’s more important in many ways than actual conducting skills, because however elegant your technique looks, it doesn’t do any good unless you can effectively hear what you’re getting in response to your conducting. Whilst if you can get your ears into the detail of how your chorus is singing, your gestures intuitively adapt themselves to those needs.

The theme was most obviously apparent in the sessions’ content: all delegates had three Core sessions focused on it: Diagnostic Listening, Creating a Listening Chorus Culture, and Develop a Listening Gesture. There were also a number of sessions (such as our guest educator Theo’s on warming up, and on philosophies of musical enjoyment) which could have been presented from other perspectives, but were approached explicitly through the ears in response to the theme.

The thing I found most directly rewarding about the theme was approaching conducting coaching primarily through the ears. When you’re doing one-to-one work, there is a sense in which you can’t come in with an agenda, because the primary focus has to be on what the needs of the person you’re currently working with are. But whatever those needs are, there are still opportunities to address them through the ears, and in doing so we had some interesting experiences.

It is very usual in conducting training for a coach to advise a conductor to move around less with their body and to make their gestures smaller and more contained. To quote Theo, ‘I’ve not seen a gesture this weekend that was too small’. And of course all conductors, however committed they are to following best practice, find this very difficult. Habits are hard to change, after all, and we make our movements too large because we have become accustomed to doing so.

One of my headline discoveries this weekend was that if you ask a director to focus more on what they are listening for, they calm their physical movements down as a by-product, without really being aware they’re doing it. And in the process, they reveal levels of intuitive expressiveness that are often hidden when they are focused on projecting the music to their singers.

I have observed before that conductor stillness often correlates with paying close aural attention, but I don’t think I had consciously taken the next step to use this as a coaching tool. But oh my, it’s effective. Instead of dividing a director’s attention between trying to self-monitor to keep their limbs under control and meeting the pressing needs of all singers, you just focus the ears on the sound and get what you would have asked for physically as a benign unintended consequence.

It was also interesting to note how the terms in which a director answered the question, ‘So tell me what you’re hearing?’ gives a lot of information about how they conceive the conductor-choir relationship. Some people simply reported on the sound (which is what I thought I was asking about), while others talked about the extent to which their gestures were achieving the results they were after. Which is interesting too, but also reveals a conceptual model of conducting primarily as a signalling activity, in which the conductor instigates the sound and measures success by how well the sound matches what they thought they were doing.

As I discussed in my session on listening gesture, this concept certainly captures part of the conductor’s job, especially at the start of the music, but it can’t represent a full model of the process as it doesn’t account for how much of conducting is also a response to sound. The interactive loop is essential to the process, as we discovered during lockdown, when the futility of conducting in the absence of real-time sound became fully apparent.

So it turns out that part of getting into fully our ears involves a shift in mindset to stop thinking about ourselves and what we are broadcasting and dedicate all our intention to what we are receiving. You might worry that this involves an abrogation of our primary duty to lead people through the music as we conceive it. My observation is, though, that people don]t stop having interesting and vivid musical thoughts when they stop focusing on how they’re conducting. Rather, those interesting and vivid musical thoughts become more clearly apparent when they’re less self-conscious. If you’ve done enough thinking about the music to know what you want to show, you know it deeply enough that you don’t need put your main focus on how you are showing it.

Also, my magic bullet for the weekend: the most direct way into deep, deep listening comes by homing in on the baritone line. But don’t tell the singers you’re doing that, just let the magic happen.

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