It was in my early years with the Hilliard Ensemble that I learned about coaching. The group ran its own summer school and had been asked to coach in mainland Europe, particularly in Finland and Germany. Our annual visits to Kangasniemi at the invitation of the Sibelius Academy – intense coaching sessions followed by traditional wood-smoke saunas and swimming in the lake – were the ultimate in combining business with pleasure. None of us had coached before, and it took a while for us to figure out how to do it. We were going through a huge change of approach to our own music making, moving away from the conventional leader/led string quartet model to a cooperative venture that would eventually revolutionise our ideas about how the music worked. We didn’t really know how we did it. It was an instinctive process – something we rarely talked about – and as we got more and more into it we rehearsed less and less, increasingly aware that no amount of rehearsal would reveal more than a fraction of the musical possibilities, some of which we would only discover in performance. We enjoyed testing each others’ listening to the limit whenever we could, and on the Hilliard Live recordings in particular you can almost feel the risk-taking as we pushed the music into one-off new shapes (and that’s exactly how Officium worked). We were incredibly fortunate to work with a number of groups who would go on to become hugely successful – Singer Pur and Amarcord from Germany, Köyhät Ritarit and Lumen Valo from Finland and the Scandinavian Trio Mediaeval were just the tip of an enlightened ensemble iceberg. When I came to edit the Cambridge Companion to Singing some years later the ensemble singing chapter wrote itself – I’d had several years to contemplate how we actually did it.
It was very simple. Once you realise that every note you sing is communicating information to the others, and that you are similarly receiving information from them, all you have to do is listen. The person with the moving part effectively has control at any given moment, and in almost any piece of renaissance music the lead will pass from part to part. You negotiate in real time. It’s easy until someone tells you it‘s difficult, and it enables you to perform the music differently each time. You don’t expect a definitive performance and you don’t count the beats – the text provides the rhythm. It’s endlessly creative, and was a far cry from the dull discipline we’d been brought up with – aim for a rehearsal close to perfection and reproduce it in performance; mark the score to make sure you got it exactly right, do as the director tells you. I haven’t marked anything in a score for years – if something works I’ll remember it, if it doesn’t I’ll try something else next time. In the bad old days we used to mark exactly how long the final chords were. Why on earth would you want them to be the same every time? The art of successful coaching is really to persuade your students that it really is that simple, and that they already possess the tools to make it work. So much more rewarding all round than simply telling them what to do.
Red Byrd, the Sound and the Fury and the Dowland project worked in much the same way; for me it’s the only way to work (it’s been a very long time since I worked with anyone who wanted to tell me what to do…). I still coach some amazing groups (most recently Nobiles and Sjaella from Germany)and I’d certainly never dream of telling them what to do. Even the young musicians who did my ensemble singing MA at York (invented by the singers who would later become Juice) were given complete freedom to explore their collective creative personae once they‘d grasped the secret of how musical communication works. In time the less courageous tend to revert to something more conventional and predictable, but I can always recognise those who really got it: you can never tell what they’re going to do next.