Dancing About Architecture
One of the most challenging aspects of choral rehearsal is communication. Now, that word covers a lot of ground; but in this case, I’m referring to the communication between conductor and singers: the art of communicating what I want to hear, of how I want them to music.
The hard truth is that language is a wholly inadequate medium through which to communicate musical intent, so it’s inevitable that we so often turn to analogies try to help our singers understand what we want from them: “Sing it like you’re an elephant/floating in the ocean/pulling taffy/tap-dancing on Pluto”* I don’t think that’s a bad thing. In some circumstances, the right analogy can be a miraculous shortcut to the end you are seeking – for instance, sometimes “sing this more softly” will not yield the magic that “sing this more reverently” might. Where the problem so often arises is in the execution.
Years and years ago, I sat in on a rehearsal run by a well-respected conductor. Working on a particularly non-diatonic section of music, he wasn’t getting the sound that he wanted. He tried this and then that, and then he finally said “sing it more…blue”.
Interestingly, no one asked him what he meant. There was a moment of charged silence, with a few furrowed brows, but also many heads nodding. Then they sang it again, which is when it became clear that whatever he had meant by “blue”, each of the other 55 people in the room understood “blue” to mean something entirely different. The word had no specific meaning to them. That rehearsal ended in frustration.
Many years later, I was working with my own youth choir. We were playing around in our warmup with different kinds of ensemble sounds: darker, lighter, brighter, softer. On one try, they sang the exercise with an intensity that was undeniably pleasing, and everyone looked excited, so I immediately asked them to do it again. After they did, I asked them: what was that sound? And one of my singers piped up: “It was purple”.
So, purple it became. From that moment on, every time I needed that particular sound, I told them to sing it “more purple”, and they knew exactly what to do. They knew it because they had experienced it for themselves, and because they had also experienced “not-purple”. It became a descriptor not only of a specific sound, but of a physical sensation of performing that sound. It moved from analogy to direct instruction.
See, it isn’t enough to come up with a good, descriptive analogy – you have to find a way to specifically define its meaning to your singers. This is the missing link between the metaphysical realm of music, and the physical realm of musical performance. We often skip over the making of that link – if they know what I’m asking for, they’ll understand automatically how to achieve it. But this is rarely true.
Moreover, this need to work towards specific understanding applies not only to analogies, but also to what we might consider to be direct instruction to begin with. This is especially true when working with amateur or inexperienced singers. “Sing that line more legato” may seem like it should be easy to understand, but unless every individual in your group also understands how to execute a legato, you won’t achieve it, at least not on the first try.
The good news is, once you have established what “legato” (or “reverent” or “purple”) means, both aurally and kinesthetically, then you will save yourself a lot of time in future rehearsals; obviously, the investment of time will be worthwhile. I’ll get into some ideas about how to do that in a future post.
*All real-life analogies used in real-life rehearsals, only one of which was actually used by me…