Tuesday, February 3, 2009

You're a Musician? What instrument do you play?

I've been asked this question many times.  The simple answer is Piano or Organ, but really, I would never consider myself a Pianist or Organist in a professional sense anymore.  I'm a conductor.  So ... What is my instrument?  

Many years ago, I was driving across the border taking the southern short-cut from Alberta to Ontario, when the customs agent asked me what I did for a living, I told him I was a musician.  When he asked where my instrument was, I said I wasn't carrying one.  This apparently raised a red flag, and they proceeded to search every known cavity of my car.  I tried to explain that I was a conductor, but they were sill absolutely dumbfounded that I wouldn't have a guitar case in the car.  "How can you be a musician if you don't have a guitar?".  Seriously, that was the gist of the conversation.  And if you think that's fun - try going through airport security with a tuning fork.

So, now my answer to the question is that on Mondays my instrument is a chamber choir of nearly 40 voices, on Tuesdays my instrument is a symphonic  choir of 120 voices, and on Thursdays and Sundays, my instrument is a church choir of about 20 voices.  

Is the choir really an instrument?  Well, yes, I believe it is.  The artistic interpretation and overall sound and tone will mainly depend on what I am able to do with it - although limited by the ability of the ensemble - but mainly limited by by my ability.

The main difference between a 9 foot Steinway and a 30 voice choir is of course, that the choral instrument is full of people.  Each with their own personalities, abilities and above all, sensitivities.  Yelling at a piano, or moving it to different locations, will not hurt its feelings.  None of this of course is something that hasn't been written about before, but it is one of my main struggles as a choral conductor. 

Where I struggle most is in my great fear of hurting people's feelings.  I have difficulty choosing soloists, saying "no" after an audition, or standing up to people who confront me about artistic or interpretive decisions.  Over the last few years I have become better about this aspect of the job - this has come with experience, and confidence.  For example, I'm not afraid to tell people to shut-up during rehearsals, or to point out individuals in cases of poor blend, or pitch issues - and now that they know me better, they are very much open to this type of criticism, I've also become better about demanding more from an ensemble, and pushing them to achieve great heights.  

The ONE thing that I still struggle with the most is seating arrangements!  In fact, it is the one thing I wish I never had to do.  In some choirs I don't worry about it at all, it is basically "Sopranos sit here, Altos here ... but where you sit within your sections is up to you" - but in my chamber choir it is something I am so often confronted with.  Whether it is someone who really "likes" to be in the back row, or likes to be sitting beside "so and so".  When I move voices, it is impossible for me to think that I am hurting their feelings - or moving them in a situation where they don't want to be - beside someone they don't want to be beside, or in a row that is not a row they want to be in.  And in someway, I've made their experience less enjoyable.  It's almost worse than not letting them in the choir in the first place!

Next Monday night ... new seating plan .... wish me luck.


Peter Malcolm said...

Interesting blog entry, John. I'm curious about your thoughts on placement to achieve the best blend from a chamber choir. Having seen how other conductors manage that aspect of their "instrument" I'm wondering, for instance, how much of that how much can be taught and how much is just your own ear and years of experience.

John Brough said...

Thanks Peter,

Yes, the ear is probably the driving force here. There are textbooks that will tell you the right and wrong way, but I just find moving them around, playing with the order and positions the best test.
I've done it all - from mixed, to S-A-T-B, to S-T-B-A, to back row men, front row women - and every time i move them, there are immediate results, and then usually a time where it wears out and needs to be moved again.

In the case of moving individuals, this is where the other problems have to be considered, including the happiness of those in the choir itself, but also blend issues. There is no point in moving a voice for a blend reason if they are unhappy to be there. I have sung beside voices where I just haven't enjoyed myself. Nothing against the voice as a person, just different vowels, or other habits that drive me crazy. So I usually just move people, and assume that silence is acceptance. If someone complains to me about it, I'll do what I can to move them, or explain to them my decisions. It's a hard process at times, but eventually things work themselves out.

In short - yes, ears ... and years ... both important aspects of these decisions.

Crimson Rambler said...

this is an old, old debate!

liz garnett said...

Hi John,

I think you've hit the nail on the head that it's the act of changing that effects the improvement. People just sing better when they're jolted out of autopilot - both socially and musically. And I think if everyone knows that any seating arrangement is temporary, they're happier to live with a position that they might complain about if they thought it were permanent.

But I *so* empathise with that not wanting to hurt feelings thing! Of course, if you weren't so concerned about it, you'd be much more likely actually to hurt feelings, whereas I'd bet that in fact your singers are very aware of your care for them.


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