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Choirs as Ensembles

 

Some years ago I was asked to contribute a chapter to a choral yearbook in Finland. The project didn’t actually materialise and I came across an old draft of it a few days ago. It’s about choir singers taking more responsibility, rather than relying on the conductor too much.  Post-Tampere seems a good time to re-consider this sort of thing, so here are some edited bits of it…

Choirs and ensembles

As an ensemble singer I’m used to the subtle nuances that are possible when you work with the same people over a long period of time, or with musicians who have a similar background and experience: Red Byrd has always works on the principle of equal creative responsibility from everyone taking part, and the Sound & the Fury works in a similar way (as does the Dowland Project). For me it goes back to my time with the Hilliard Ensemble, which evolved an intuitive way of doing things and would make a point of singing even quite large-scale works such as Arvo Pärt’s Passio with no one out front. This was a liberating experience and while I sang with the Hilliards I certainly didn’t envisage becoming a conductor myself; ensemble singing had become so sophisticated that it was hard to imagine handing over creative responsibility to one person.   Over the years I began to put my thoughts together on how ensemble singing actually works, some of which found their way into the ‘Ensemble Singing’ chapter in my Cambridge Companion to Singing, and when I went to work at the University of York I began to apply some basic rules to student ensembles, trying to equip them with the means to work on their own without outside input. I ran an MA in Ensemble Singing and a number of excellent ensembles came to work with me over the twelve years I was there.  Eventually I also found myself conducting various chamber choirs, beginning with a small women’s choir (there was the usual excess of women singers at the university). I had done some coaching sessions with the Finnish Radio Choir in the past and more recently with the Latvian Radio Choir, and it was understood that my role then was to give them an idea of how to sing without a conductor or at least to encourage them to be more responsive and pro-active, to be active participants in the creative process in partnership with the conductor. My only experience of actual conducting was a very long time ago when I conducted a concert by the Worcester Police Male Voice Choir as a favour to a friend (Henry Sandon, he of the Antiques Road Show; we were both Lay Clerks at Worcester Cathedral at the time). I was able to agree to this because it was made clear to me by the police chief that whatever I did in the way of gestures, the choir would sing the pieces the same way they did them last time and the time before that; all I had to do was put on the uniform and wave (and a certain leniency with regard to future parking fines was hinted at). So when I (reluctantly) came to conduct at York, with virtually no experience of conducting and no recent experience of singing in a choir, my ensemble singing experience was all I had to fall back on; the logical approach was to make the choir as much like an ensemble as possible.

Channels of communication

From my perspective as a singer it has always seemed a bit odd that the choir seems to do all the work and the conductor gets all the credit, so one of my first concerns was to establish a way of working that made it quite clear that the choir was an organic entity, capable of performing by itself. This doesn’t mean that I didn’t want to take the credit for my part in the proceedings – I have a performer’s ego just like anyone else – but rather that my role was defined a little differently from that of a traditional conductor.  The first thing to do was to convince the choir that they didn’t need me standing out in front, provided we could agree on a number of basic performance conventions that would, in effect, replace some of the actions that they might expect a conductor to take. I have found that the way to do this is to go right back to basics and discuss the question of communication: who is communicating with whom and what is it that they are communicating. Of course, singers communicate with audiences; we all understand that. But perhaps even more important is the communication that singers have with their fellow performers. As an image, I’ve found it helpful to suggest to singers that these two types of communication are conceptualised in two directions. Their voices, faces and body language, communicate directly with the audience but their ears are operating at right angles to this, starting with the singers standing next to them and continuing along the line as far as they can hear. Once the idea of this two-element model of communication is established we can begin to analyse what actually happens in performance.

Communicative value

The dynamics of such a model are much more complicated than this simple strategy appears to imply. Communication with the audience is not usually a problem: choirs are used to looking up from the music and demonstrating their own enthusiasm or emotional commitment to the music. The listener constructs his or her interpretation of the performance and this is only partly determined by anything the performers might do: the meanings transmitted by the singers will be modified by the listeners in the light of their own knowledge and experience.  Communication between voices in the choir is a different matter and has to be learned. The first thing to demonstrate is that everything has communicative value, whether it is a gesture, a note or even a breath, and unlike the broader relationship with the audience, communicative acts between singers contain specific information.   This is the first and most important principle that will enable the choir to work as a thinking creative entity. Everything else flows from the understanding that everything a singer does contains information useful to his or her fellow singers.  We can elaborate on the basic model by thinking of audience communication as visual and vocal and essentially one-way, whereas internal choir communication involves a two-way channel that is both vocal and auditory. Essentially, singers transmit and receive information among themselves with every gesture they make, whether vocal or physical.

Auditory awareness: tempo and breath

Once we know that we can communicate with each other, we then have to think about what sort of information we are giving and receiving.  Much of the useful information is to do with tempo, and almost all communicative acts between singers contain information that either confirms the tempo or offers the possibility of modifying it. The process begins before a piece starts with the first breath that the singers take. If, for example, a piece starts on a downbeat, then the first breath will act as an upbeat.  Everyone will have an idea of what the tempo should be, and roughly when the piece is going to start. An alert choir should be able to negotiate a tempo within the space of that upbeat breath, leaving only one place where the downbeat will inevitably come. It may take a bit of getting used to in rehearsals if the choir has always relied on being brought in by the conductor, but I found with my York choirs that the singers very quickly got used to starting themselves and it became routine (I just told them where to start from and they would automatically set off in a unanimous tempo). Giving singers the responsibility for their own music causes a rise in energy level: they know they have to be awake and listening in order to make it work. In concert this frees their eyes to be looking directly at the audience, rather than focusing on the conductor. The effect of a large body of singers starting simultaneously and in tempo without any visible means of support can be breathtaking for audiences, especially those who have previously thought of the conductor as the prime source of inspiration. The whole process seems to happen by magic. The ‘magic’ element is an important part of ensemble singing, and it’s at this point that my previous witterings about note-giving come into play…

More ramblings to follow…

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