Sunday, February 24, 2008

Making it up as you go along

In July 2007 I wrote about choral conducting (It’s just a bit of hand waving) and about the assumptions we sometimes make about what our hand gestures mean. After last week’s post on often having to repeat ourselves in rehearsals (I’m only going to say this once), I began to wonder how much of the job of perfecting a piece is down to rehearsing, and how much can be left to the performance itself. In other words, how much of the work can be done by the conductor in the moment, rather than by drilling in the rehearsal room?

When I first started choral conducting, like many other community choir leaders I had no specific training in the art. I had a good sense of timing and musicality, and kind of blundered through with a few basic gestures. Over time I have refined these gestures and in their turn, the choir have become more attentive to me in general and to subtle changes in my hand waving. I feel that I have far more control in performances than I ever did and the choir enjoy (I hope!) being able to respond in the moment. I might decide to take a passage much more quietly than we ever did in rehearsal because I am aware that the audience is really listening and being super-attentive. I might decide to repeat a section because things are going really well, the audience are clearly enjoying the song, and it would be great if it went on a little longer. Because of the acoustic of the space I might decide to repeat the ending several more times than in rehearsal because the effect of getting quieter and quieter can be clearly heard and is much more effective in this space than in our rehearsal room. And so on.

If we have a good, clear, fairly large repertoire of conducting gestures, might we not just practice the notes and singing quality (vocal technique, lyricism, breathing, etc.) of a song in rehearsal, but leave the overall structure and dynamics of it until the actual performance? (Of course, this doesn’t really apply to the classical repertoire, or more structured and complex pieces whose structure is pretty much set in advance). In this case the choral director becomes more of a musician who is ‘playing’ the ‘instruments’ (voices) that are available.

Do others of you leave more (or less) scope in the actual performance, or are you happier with totally nailing things down in rehearsal? Personally I’m always in favour of leaving a little space for improvisation or responding to the moment — it keeps the choir on their toes and means that the song becomes truly alive!

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Sunday, February 17, 2008

I'm only going to say this once

Conductor Kenneth Woods posted an item on his blog last week (As I was just saying) about the problems of having to repeat oneself constantly in rehearsals. Why, oh why, can’t we just say the thing once and everybody gets it??!! This got me to thinking about repetition and its place in rehearsal and learning.

Interestingly, the French word for rehearsal is répétition, which can be translated as ‘repetition’. Of course, in order to get good at something we have to try it again and again until we get good at it. So rehearsals are by their very nature repetitions. The singers or musicians repeat and repeat the same piece over and over again until it becomes second nature. (As an aside: for a community choir which learns songs by ear, where is the dividing line between learning and rehearsing?)

What Kenneth was talking about however was the problem of the conductor giving clear instructions to the choir or orchestra, only to have to repeat the same instruction several times because not everyone got it the first time. He attributes this to a lack of “in-rehearsal focus” and mentions Georg Solti's apparent absolute refusal to ever repeat himself in rehearsals. I guess working in the professional world he always had the option of firing anyone who didn’t listen properly!

But I wonder if it’s just lack of focus. It occurred to me that it also may be an issue of learning styles. It is well-known that different people respond in different ways to being taught. Some need to be shown visually, some need to hear it said and others need to have some kind of tactile input. There is also an issue of finding the right words or way of expressing something that will click in properly with each individual’s internal concepts. For example, the following are different ways of saying roughly the same thing:

  • “we will go very quiet from here, then at the beginning of the last verse we will gradually get louder until we reach a maximum at the end”
  • “I want pianissimo from bar 12, then a gradual crescendo from bar 18 until we reach mezzo forte by the end of the piece”
  • “imagine that you are singing to a baby but don’t want to wake him. Then it’s as if the sun comes out from behind a cloud and the energy of the sound begins to increase from the word ‘moving’ and gets bigger and bigger until by the end we fill the whole house with sound”

Depending on each individual’s personality, experience, and even the kind of day that they’ve had, they may respond to each of the above in different ways. The first may well get through to the majority of the choir, the second to those few who are musically or mathematically inclined, and the last to those with more visual imaginations. In a way, we will have repeated ourselves, but it’s more like finding as many different ways of saying the same thing so that we can get through to everyone involved. We’ve all had the experience of repeating ourselves until we’re blue in the face, only for the person we’re talking to have a light bulb go off in their head when they suddenly get it. It’s just that we’ve eventually found the right way of saying it which has got through to them.

Another thought I had was to wonder how much of these in-rehearsal instructions we actually have to give? How much can we deal with in the moment of performance by using the correct conducting gestures? My next post will be some musings on how much control a conductor has in performance (Making it up as you go along).

In the meantime, whatever your learning style, please, please, PLEASE pay attention next time I have something important to say!

go to Chris Rowbury's website

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Go team!

Several people I know believe that to be able to sing harmony with others you have to get on with them. It is so important to be friends with each other (especially in small harmony ensembles) that they spend a lot of time and effort to set up ‘bonding’ opportunities and ensure that there are plenty of socialising events involving the group.

I have never believed this to be true! My own philosophy is that if you have roughly the same skill levels and interest in producing beautiful music, then you can sing harmony even if you don’t get on with all your fellow singers.

I was listening to a BBC Radio 4 programme recently about working in teams (Team Spirit). The programme was about business and modern companies like Google and Nokia, but the results apply equally well to other team or group endeavours (they also discussed the Cambridge rowing team). Recent research into team working has shown that the most successful teams have three things in common – everyone in the team is prepared to co-operate; everyone in the team has diverse points of view (and often diverse backgrounds – race, gender, education, class, etc.); and all teams have a mission that is very exciting for them.

It seems from the research that some of our old ideas about teams are wrong. For instance, there are basically two ways to form a team:

  1. start by pulling all the group together and be highly sociable, then move onto the task at hand; or
  2. focus on the task first, get everyone to work together, than socialise.

It turns out that the second approach is more effective. Give the team a really interesting, exciting task and get them to work on it. Choose people on the basis of their capacity to co-operate, not necessarily to be friends or have things in common. Also, co-operation is not a personality trait, it can be learnt. The danger of the first approach is that people may quickly realise how much they don’t like each other!

The upshot of this is that when forming a new singing group, it is not necessary to get together with a bunch of friends, or even people with the same points of view. It’s not even necessary to form a group of people who are able to co-operate (this can be learnt). You need to get a group of people with diverse backgrounds who are really excited about the project (group, style of music, director, performing opportunities, etc.), who have the basic musical/ singing skills required, and who are willing to co-operate (even if they’re not yet very good at it). You will then make beautiful music, and who knows, as a bonus, you may just end up liking each other too!

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Sunday, February 03, 2008

Little voice

This being the cold and ’flu season, and since I work with a wide variety of people from all over the country, I thought I’d do my bit and catch a chesty cold with accompanying cough! 

I’ve been very lucky in my vocal career so far and have never had to cancel a workshop or rehearsal due to a cold, nor have I ever lost my voice. Until last week that is.