The Path Through the Trees

‹-- PreviousNext --›

Today I am going to mull on an intriguing bit of advice Mo Field offered at LABBS Harmony College in April. She suggested that chorus directors show their singers ‘the path through the trees’. By this she meant that instead of focusing on the percussive events (the trees), we should give attention to the overall line of the music.

Now, traditional conducting technique is all about clarity - the director’s primary task is to keep everyone unambiguously together. Leonard Bernstein talked about this role as ‘glorified traffic cop’; I have been known to refer to it as the ‘sheepdog function’. On the face of it Mo’s advice would seem to directly contradict this received wisdom.

But further contemplation finds ways to a Hegelian synthesis between the two positions. For one thing, traditional conducting patterns aren’t about percussive events per se, but about metrical framework. For sure, some events happen on beats, but many do not. Conducting patterns orient people to the barlines, but the music is all in the travel from ictus to ictus.

In this sense, then Mo’s advice is entirely consistent with the idea in classical conducting that you should avoid sub-dividing too much, and with the advice in barbershop directing that you need to move away from directing every syllable.

There’s also the issue of how different rehearsal and performance circumstances have different needs. If you have relatively little rehearsal time together, clarity of pattern is essential to guide people through music they won’t know that well by the performance with people they may not know that well either. The bulk of professional freelance work is like this.

If you have time to develop deeper relationships within the ensemble and with the music, the needs are different. Amateur ensembles, strangely, have this in common with those few professional groups lucky to be well-funded enough to afford plenty of rehearsal time. But when the musicians have time to absorb the music, to store it at least partially in themselves rather than on the copies they’re performing from, they can do a lot of the coordination between themselves by ear and by feel. At this point, the conductor is much freer to think about the path, as the performers already know where the trees are.

When teaching conducting, I tell people that they should imagine how the ensemble would sound without a conductor, and their job is to improve on that. So a useful exercise for directors with a tendency to over-direct (i.e. most of us) is every so often to ask our singers to do without us for a run-through. That way we learn how much they can do without explicit signalling, and where they need specific guidance. This exercise then also frees us up to think about the path between the trees.

The key thing needed in both modes (tree-identification and path-mapping) is intent. The director needs a clear concept of the musical route they’re charting. Singers find it hard to discern what you mean if you’re not clear yourself.

The other thing that occurred to me as I mulled upon this advice was that it transfers very nicely to other domains of life, and our inner games as we negotiate our way through them. It is all too easy to get hung up on our internal obstacles, staring at them, analysing them. They respond by just sitting there and getting bigger. Looking at where you want to go beyond them makes life much more possible.

...found this helpful?

I provide this content free of charge, because I like to be helpful. If you have found it useful, you may wish to make a donation to the causes I support to say thank you.

Archive by date

Syndicate content