Rhapsody, Rapture and the Conductor-Choir Bond

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Tuesday evening took me to Peterborough to work with Rhapsody Chorus and their director Helen Glavina. Their choice of repertoire for the evening was driven by the programme for their BBC Choir of the Year audition tomorrow (good luck!), but my remit for the evening was to help Helen refine and develop her directing technique. It is a supreme act of trust for a director to allow her technique to be dissected in front of her singers, but for those who take that leap, there are some immense benefits that can’t be achieved any other way.

Working on conducting gesture with the group you direct regularly gives you very clear and direct feedback about what difference the changes are making, as you have a clear basis for comparison with what you usually hear. It allows the coach to see exactly what you usually do, and with what effect, and so suggest changes on the basis of the chorus sound rather than an abstract sense of ‘best practice’. And involving the chorus in the process gives them a greater insight into the director-singer dynamic – of which more anon.

Now, much was already going on effectively with Helen’s technique. She is committed and expressive as a director, and the generally clean and well-coordinated performances she produces are a testament to her lack of distracting mannerisms. (Synchronisation issues are almost invariably a symptom of mixed messages from the director.) The task was largely to adjust posture and gesture so as to increase the consistency of the sound – and the reward for successful tweaks was increased resonance.

There were three main adjustments. First was to remove bobbing on the knees. Helen didn’t have a major case of this (nothing like I used to!), and it was mostly there as an incidental part of refreshing the posture particularly in anticipation of significant chord changes, but it was creating an audible, if momentary, lapse in the sound that disappeared once she maintained her frame.

Second, was to keep the gesture contained into an area that didn’t require a sense of reaching out. She was already using this region to good effect – in fact she had some wonderful moments of sensitivity and control in it – but was also reaching beyond it, forwards, upwards, and (to a lesser extent) outwards, particularly in louder dynamics. Bringing these gestures back into a more central directing space delivered a much more supported and integrated sound.

Third, was keeping the upper body upright, and not leaning in towards the singers. This was something that Helen had already done a lot of work on, but there was a residual instinct to want to move towards the singers when she wanted more from them. Thinking instead of giving them more space to sing into helped counter this. A related tweak was to support the highest dynamic levels by widening the back rather than raising the chest. Again, this aided support, and yielded a sound that made the singers feel like they were masters of the universe.

The singers were key to the coaching, providing both direct musical feedback via what happened to their voices when directing technique changed, and also in reporting how they felt about the experience. It is most encouraging for a director to hear that her gestures are helping singers with elements of vocal technique they have been working on over previous months and years!

The feedback loop between director and singers is often conceptualised as starting with the director, who provides the musical impetus to the ensemble, who then reciprocate with their sound, which in turn director moulds and adapts to. But some of our most striking results occurred when we asked the singers to take the role as musical originators.

There was a moment in one song where the intention was for a change of colour and dynamics. This was happening, but with a little loss of clarity to the sound. Helen’s body language was implicated in this, but in the kind of subtle, holistic ways that you can’t adjust by conscious control over your body parts. So, we discussed with the singers the sonic and emotional effects that part of the song required, then I asked them to project those feelings onto Helen as they sang.

With striking results. Not only did their expressiveness help Helen make the infinitesimally small intuitive tweaks to her demeanour that the sound needed, but she suddenly had a whole new level of connection with and control over the sound. She was swept into that wonderful place where the music fills you up and you can stop thinking about ‘showing’ things, and just be the music. Chorus and director both found that sweet spot where pleasure, challenge and meaning intersect rapturously.

The evening as a whole was a practical application of the central theme of my book on choral conducting: what is the nature of the connection between a director’s physical disposition and a choir’s sound? The research started with immersion in the sound, and it is unbelievably satisfying to take the insights it gave me directly back into lived musical experience.

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