What choir leader training did for me

It’s three years now since I undertook my choral conducting course. Living on the south coast of England, I was lucky enough to be in easy travelling distance of London, which meant that I could undertake the Association of British Choral Directors’ intermediate course.

Starting out

I was just starting out with my choir and although I was a competent enough musician, I only had a tiny amount of experience as a conductor. I wasn’t scared of leading a group or speaking in public (fifteen years in the legal profession had taken care of that) but I was worried about how I should conduct the choir. I didn’t have the physical vocabulary to convert my vision for the music into gestures that communicated that vision to my choir.

Ironing out bad habits

At my first training session, I quickly realised that I’d already got into some bad habits. The tutors spent the first couple of sessions simply paring our conducting styles back to the barest minimum so that we could focus on nothing more than showing a beat. Only when we could cleanly show tempo and metre were we encouraged to introduce expression and character into our conducting.

Work, work, work

In monthly practical sessions, the group conducted for each other while the rest formed a (not at all bad!) choir. The tutors gave us feedback and criticism – always very positive and helpful. In between practical sessions we were given ‘homework’ – gestures and pieces to practise, score preparation, programme planning and even a bit of composition.

We were videoed in the practicals and encouraged to review the recordings at home. While it was excruciating at first to see myself as the choir saw me, I learned a tremendous amount from the exercise.

Instant benefits

One of the great joys of going through my training course was that I was able to translate what I was learning into real improvements for my choir on a weekly basis. My confidence grew exponentially as I started to feel that I had real, workable knowledge that I could rely on at rehearsals and performances. I was less rushed, less flustered, and more able to enjoy working with my choir. The choir, in return, upped their game significantly as I was able to more clearly show them what I wanted from them.

Comments on What choir leader training did for me

  1. Hi,

    Is there any way you can repeat that course to us far flung followers, using video to demonstrate the physical gestures (and sound)? It would also be interesting for us to prepare some scores and then compare them (with others? and) a model one showing various points to note – it could make for an interesting discussion forum.

    Like so many, I find your podcasts, articles and tweets highly relevant. You articulate things I grapple with in leading a small female choir (currently 14 of us), which sings a necessarily eclectic range of fairly simple music (we’re in a small town in a rural province). Much of it is part singing a cappella, drawn often from so-called “world” music, although much more English is creeping in now. I’m finding people often really struggle with what are to me interesting and beautiful (eg modal) tonalities and unusual rhythms, for example, Georgian close harmonies and they especially find the foreign languages difficult (whereas to me that is a huge part of the joy. I have a background in foreign languages). Sadly, Bortnianski’s Tibie Paiom was not a successful choice (in that the choir balked at the Russian pronunciation to start with), ditto, the Croatian Oj Savice and Georgian Shen Khar Venakhi – if you happen to have come across those (all of which I love). I think there must be a way I can improve my own skills such that I can teach those kinds of things so the group is able to sing and enjoy them. If we master African beats with simple repetitive language (and chicken wing dancing to boot!), then these sorts of songs can be a hoot and rewarding. The more complex ones are likely to flaw me as well as the group (much of those are best learnt and taught orally/aurally, I think, and they come from an oral tradition – I don’t think they lend themselves very well to being scored, but need to be modelled “call and response” style – whereas working through a score of tiny little offbeat demisemiquavers and so on is daunting for me! My brain has to work hard just trying to get the rhythm, whereas if it is heard, we can just “get” it, even if syncopated). As a result I’ve reverted to much more accessible songs in English (or else with just a foreign phrase or few words that repeat and repeat) – eg even starting with very simple and familiar things like Kumbaya, inviting expression and any spontaneous harmonization within the group while singing, as they feel so moved. I’d like to start exploring some traditional celtic songs – for example, is there a part song setting to the Eriskay Love Lilt? I’d love to know where (free or cheaply and quickly) to source graded choral songs (traditional folk ones, particularly, or simple madrigals, early music) suitable for fairly inexperienced singers with little formal knowledge of music. I’m less interested in/familiar with contemporary songs and jazz although would be game to try depending on the level of difficulty. My own musicianship extends to long choral experience and to being able to bash lines out on a keyboard easily enough (having learnt the piano to Grade 7 as a teenager) and I’ve recently taught myself various chords, strums and picking on a ukulele to be able to accompany the group for some songs, ditto learnt from on YouTube how to play (probably very badly) djembe drums. We occasionally all have a go on various percussion instruments to add another dimension to certain songs.

    So, to summarise: I would be interested in your proposed song leaders’/conductors’ course: practice and feedback (I can relate to the “excruciating” bit above!). I am also looking for “graded” scores and suggestions suitable for an adult early stage choir (graduated in terms of easiness – ideally with sound tracks to aid learning).

    Finally, thank you so much for sharing fun warm-ups, rounds, quod libets (my group calls them quaddlies!) etc (and for all your communications). We had a lot of fun with the Junk Food Song this week, and yes, Belle Mama is a great hit to bring together new people and get everyone singing and hearing harmony. Our year is just beginning now and I’m really pleased to report that the group still exists after our long Antipodean summer holiday and there are a few new members. We’re all keen!

    Pam Nicholls in New Zealand

    1. Hi, I’m addressing one of my own questions! I realised I could have tried to do my own arrangement of the Eriskay Love Lilt based on a i iv v chord progression, but then on hunting round the internet today after I wrote the above reply, I came across this: https://primrose-music.co.uk/a-cappella-arrangements/ which has one available. Very useful for what I’m wanting. They offer lots of arrangements suitable for beginning community choirs, including one for My Lagan Love which is exactly the sort of sound I love! Pam

    2. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi Pam. Thank you so much for your comments. Christine and I are hard at work on our first training course, which will be launched on 31 March and, I hope, will be just what you’re looking for. Watch this space!

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