Conducting

LABBS Convention 2018

The White Rosettes during their monumental mic-cooling setThe White Rosettes during their monumental mic-cooling set

The last weekend in October is the traditional moment for the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers to hold their annual Convention. This year we were back in Harrogate, at the venue in which I experienced my very first one, 21 years ago. The Cheshire Chord Company won the chorus competition on that occasion too.

After the extravangzas of the last two years (the 40th anniversary Convention in 2016, and the European Convention last year), this years’ was always going to feel smaller. But the experience of that was a positive change: it was more intimate, easier to spend quality time with friends, less of a scrummage trying to get round the building.

Penny-Drop Moment

This is going to be a short one, but it deserves a post in its own right for the sense of revelation it afforded me when the idea plopped into my head.

One of the things I had been thinking about a good deal over the summer is keeping articulation small and precise, and in particular keeping the jaw at rest while singing. This is one of the things that Sean Bui worked on with the Telfordaires in June when he came to us for a coaching session, and it has proved both transformative and challenging. Until we started applying this as a means to reduce tension and improve resonance, we hadn’t realised how much the chorus had been accustomed to experiencing muscular engagement as part of emotional intensity.

Exploring Character and Narrative in Norwich

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I spent Saturday with my friends at Norwich Harmony further developing the contest set I had last worked with them on back in May. Unsurprisingly, given the elapsed time between visits, we could now build on the work we did last time on rhythm and harmony to explore how these elements contributed to the communicative dimensions of characterisation and story-telling.

We approached their up-tempo number as if it were a movie. Some songs strongly suggest a time, a place and even a filmic genre, and once you locate a song in this way, you have a common fund of imagery and associations that you can all draw on. One of the disadvantages of a cappella is that you don’t have a range of instrumental timbres to enhance the vividness of your performance; the commensurate advantage is that you have the imaginative freedom to build in opulent special effects to your concept without all the fuss of hiring an actual orchestra.

Less is Still More with Cleeve Harmony

Obligatory warm-up picObligatory warm-up picIt feels like cheating to use basically the same title for consecutive blog posts, but contriving something different would only make it less accurate.

Tuesday evening took me down towards Cheltenham to spend the evening with my friends at Cleeve Harmony. They had changed their rehearsal night from their usual Wednesday so I could come, as that is now also my own rehearsal night. (I will skip the occasional week with the Telfordaires, but not more than once a month and I had already used up my quota for high summer with Harmony University and – gasp – a week’s holiday.)

My remit for the evening was to focus primarily on the bigger-picture stuff, particularly the director and her assistant, but also with an eye and ear on the communicative impact of the music. Fortunately these are two things you can often do at once.

LABBS Directors Weekend 2018

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I sometimes wonder if the Ronseal approach* to naming the directors’ events we run for the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers underplays their sheer wonderfulness. But there’s something grounding in the balance. Just as an elevated conducting gesture really needs to be accompanied by a something that connects with the core/lower body to maintain the equilibrium of the voices, so the greater the extravaganza, the more it benefits from a matter-of-fact title.

For it was an extravaganza. We had practical work for all 50+ delegates, nurtured by our standing directors faculty; we had a rich and varied programme of electives led by 13 of our association’s most successful directors; we had the services of Cheshire Chord Company one day to explore a brand new arrangement being put together for the first time and a Volunteer Chorus the next, representing 60+ music team members and aspiring musical leaders who lent their voices in exchange for the learning experience.

Reflections from the Recording Studio

I spent all day Easter Saturday with groups of singers in a small recording studio. This was part of a hymn project I’ve been helping a midlands-based church community with for a few months. Hitherto my involvement has been with the full choir, working on vocal techniques and choral craft; this was the first time I’d actually been in the studio with them.

Most of my previous recording experience has been as a singer (or occasionally in a consultant’s role as arranger), so I’m finding it interesting to reflect on how the role of conductor and coach plays out in this context. My previous recording experience has also been with full musical textures and relatively long arcs of musical time, whereas the weekend’s procedure was working with individual sections (or in some cases, half a section at a time), and taking the music in 8- or 16-bar units.

How Conductors Create Incompetence in their Singers

Last autumn I had the opportunity to read a fascinating dissertation on choral singing in Oxford colleges by Emma Hall. (She has since blogged about some of her conclusions here.) It was a rich and nuanced piece of work, with lots to teach us, and there was one finding that really caught my attention for its implications for all choral practitioners.

This was the dynamic whereby conductors tend to correct sopranos more often than the other parts, giving both the sopranos themselves and the rest of the choir the impression that they need more correction, that they make more mistakes, thus both drawing on and reinforcing the stereotype of sopranos as the least competent voice part.

Basic Conducting Skills with abcd

Our venue for the day: Polish Millenium HouseOur venue for the day: Polish Millenium HouseI spent Saturday in central Birmingham leading a one-day course in basic conducting skills for the Association of British Choral Directors. We had participants representing a wonderful range of choral backgrounds – school choirs, church choirs, barbershop choruses, community choirs of various flavours, musical theatre, chamber choirs, a composer wanting to direct her own work. I had worried a little about meeting everyone’s needs, but in fact the breadth was very useful as it meant that nobody felt like the odd one out in terms of background or activity.

One of the things I particularly enjoy about teaching for the abcd is the way our courses are resolutely practical. Yes, there are topics that need discussion – repertoire choice, rehearsal planning, leadership and people skills – but the hand skills that are both central to and unique to conducting remain at the heart of what we do. Every participant has the opportunity to be coached as they lead the rest of the group in song, and everyone subsequently has the opportunity to review video footage of all the coaching sessions to aid their reflection and onward development.

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