Breathe with me: working with a choir

A series looking at the art of the choral conductor.

ConductingOne of the most useful pieces of advice to give someone who wants to learn about choral conducting is always to breathe with the choir.

Michael CaineI remember, many years ago, watching the great Michael Caine giving an acting masterclass on television; the topic was how to work with the camera whilst being filmed, and one of the key things he pointed out to the students was to make sure that, when you were moving (in this instance, getting up out of a chair), you took the camera-man with you. Letting the camera-man know that you were going to move by communicating your intent, he said, meant that the chap wielding the monstrously-large film-camera wouldn’t get a hernia through having to follow a sudden movement.

The same is true with directing a choir. In rehearsal, when working on a particular phrase or entry, you need to give the choir a chance to breathe in preparation. I’ve seen a few young conductors say ‘Right, sopranos, bar 40: here’s your note, GO!’ Whilst their enthusaism to get on with rehearsing is great, it never works: the singers are so busy getting ready in their own minds – finding their note, remembering the words and the tempo – that they can’t possibly all come in together without proper warning.

Counting them in both gives them time to breathe in readiness, as well as reminds them of the tempo at which you want to take the passage: if you’re note-bashing, the speed will necessarily be slower to help them get the notes right, and if you’re now taking the music at concert speed, it will let them know the new, quicker tempo.

A simple ‘OK, sopranos; let’s try your phrase at bar 40: here’s your note; and… three… four…’ The singers aren’t suddenly caught on the hop and left struggling to catch up: you’ve let them know where you’re starting from, gathered them all together and, in counting them in, given them time to breathe in anticipation. Replacing the last counted beat with the instruction to breathe is also useful: “Ready, sopranos; two…three…breathe!”

Always breathe. And with your choir, too.

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