Developing the Director

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I don’t write very much about my one-to-one work with choral directors, as it’s mostly too personal. The coaching process with an ensemble is inherently a social process (though I am mindful about which aspects to share with people who weren’t there), but work with an individual is much more private.

But there are general themes that emerge repeatedly with different directors that I’d find it useful to reflect on, and other directors may find useful too.

A common dilemma is, given how much time and attention it takes to run a choir, how do you get time to develop your own skills too? We all have areas in which we can feel our weaknesses, but we don’t necessarily have space in our lives to take a course in music theory or conducing technique, or go for singing lessons, or whatever.

(Though, now I come to mention it, engaging in formal training provided by someone else does have the great advantage that they are in charge of organising your study for the duration of the experience. So it takes more time out of life than self-guided study, but it does also relieve you of a significant issue of headspace.)

Even if we do find time to seek out tuition, it still needs integrating into our lives – we need to practise the new skills if we are to become fluent. So one of the things that I often find myself doing as I work with conductors is helping them devise ways to use the time they were already going to dedicate to choir more strategically to help.

There are three main elements to this:

  1. Identify one key area to work on at a time. We all have many things we could be better at, but if we try to advance on all fronts at once, we disperse our efforts and just become more frustrated at our skill deficits. Pick something as a project for at least the next 6 months: if it doesn’t have at least 6 months work in it, it probably isn’t your most important skill deficit. The other stuff can wait until you have focused on this – although you’ll also find the other stuff improves too as you go.
  2. Build regular, structured work on this into your prep time. A corollary of this is that this entails having regular, scheduled prep time set aside for your choir work. It is very easy to spend lots and lots of time doing stuff for your choir without actually making this kind of focused appointment with yourself. I’m not saying don’t let it take over the rest of your life (we all need something to be happily obsessed with), but I am saying that for that obsession to become purposeful and productive, you need as disciplined an approach to your own prep as you expect from your singers at rehearsal. Turn up regularly, on time, and turn your phone off unless you have reason to expect a family emergency during it.

    Once you have that appointment with yourself, approach your work through the filter of your target skill. If it’s music theory, analyse the harmonies of a song the choir is about to learn. If it’s aural skills, spend time audiating the individual lines, or listening repeatedly to a short recording made at the previous rehearsal. If it’s vocal skills, use material you’ll be rehearsing to work on your breathing, resonance, changes of register or whatever.

    The reason we shy away from this kind of detailed work is that you can’t possibly cover a choir’s whole repertoire in this kind of deep-learning, focused way, however much time we are able to put aside for prep. But you don’t have to try to cover all of it. You just have to do a bit of it regularly. The point isn’t to analyse every chord in the choir’s repertoire, the point is to get better at making sense of how chords work.

  3. Build it into your rehearsal activities. Anything that you need to work on will also benefit your choir. Make sure you include at least one activity every rehearsal that directly targets the skill you are focusing on. Duetting upgrades everyone’s ears; spending time blocking chords you have analysed gives everyone insight into the music.

    It’s easy to let the pressure of needing to prepare music for performance get in the way of more skills-focused activities, and to think ‘oh we’ll do that if we have time’. But one of the things we learned from Stephen Covey was not let the urgent supplant the important. Schedule your target skill for a bit of the rehearsal where attention will be at its best and everyone will believe that it matters.

By putting the director’s skill-development front and centre of the choir’s work you are taking the most direct route to helping the whole ensemble improve. As your skills develop, so will those of the singers – both individually and severally. You’ll also find that treating skill-development as a joint project fosters a very positive atmosphere: motivation follows action.

And this atmosphere then frames everything the choir does. If the director deals with a skill-deficit by making concerted, structured efforts to improve, this gives a very powerful message to the whole group. They already love and admire you for the amount of work you put into the choir, but when they see that work making a real difference, they will be more inclined to make efforts of their own.

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