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Meditating on Vox's post about choral conducting, I reckon that the standard shapes are not as important with choirs as they are with instrumental ensembles - provided that the tempo is clearly communicated.

 

Humphrey Clucas wrote that, when Martin Baker took over at Westminster Abbey, if he thought the boys weren't watching, he would reduce the size of his beat so that they had to look harder. That's not a bad thing - and it worked for him!

 

I was taught the techniques of conducting at Colchester Royal Grammar School and Bristol University, and had it instilled into me that it is of paramount importance to keep the beat. However, I don't like to flap like a petulant swan in front of a congregation, so I keep gestures to a minimum - for a lot of things, a beat with one finger is sufficient. One can flog oneself to death out there, when one should really have rehearsed the piece more thoroughly and made sure the singers were watching.

 

George Guest had a studied nonchalence, looking over a boys shoulder and using sparing gestures - it was an art in itself. David Hill was much more flamboyant last time I was in that neck of the woods.

 

Then there are those who manage to get wonderful results against all odds. There was a wizard in Belfast called Ronnie Lee. He was the first person to win the Sainsbury Competition twice with different choirs. No one knew how he did it, and he himself was never able to explain. The choir would pick up a piece and sing it through. There would be a pause, Ronnie would say, 'Ye-----s', they would sing it again, and it would be damn near perfect. He really had no conducting technique at all - but he did have big expressive pale eyes - maybe that was it. He apparently had his 'own' seat in the chapel at King's, and when he died John Rutter came over to Belfast for the funeral......

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It has recently been pointed out to me, in a book by James Jordan of Westminster Choir College of Rider University that, historically, choral conducting has been around far longer than orchestral conducting, having grown out of the art of chironomy which is more a horizontal style rather than a vertical one and also that the human voice, where the sound comes from within the performer, has different physiological needs to people playing an (external) instrument. Good point. I hope nobody is silly enough to think that by conducting an average sized church or chamber choir exactly the same way - and with the exactly same sort of technique - as Boult would have conducted a full size symphony orchestra they will ever get a good musical result from their choir. What they will not get is good phrasing, vocalic flow or intonation. If you want to know why then read almost any of James Jordan's books; he talks more sense on the subjec than anyone else I've every come across.

 

Interestingly, Jordon also says that as a conductor you never get good results by trying to control either the music or the performers and that you need to be open, centred and, above all, vulnerable. This amazed me at first but when I thought about it - at some length - I could see what he meant it. I then tried it with a professional standard unpaid choir I have worked with either regularly or occasionally over many years; I was quite surprised how greatly it improved both their performance and their relationship with me. If only these books - and their related videos and DVDs - (all published by GIA) had been around when I first started out things oculd have been so much better. I passed the RCO choir training diploma in 1975 but I reckon that most of what I really know about choir training I've learnt in the last three or four years, partly from GIA resources and partly from two very good singing teachers.

 

Malcolm

 

Malcolm

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I have to say (from a purely personal point of view, and in my opinion) that much of the more intimate understanding between choir and conductor is not pure arm waving skills and technique but much more about the understanding that develops over time between a choir and the conductor. I have only ever sung under one conductor that made me 'feel' he was watching me sing every second I was working for him, and that was Harry Bramma - most uncomfortabel, and very attentive, I was!!

 

As a non-conductor (and wholly untrained pianist-turned-organist) that has directed my choir for a large number of years, Harry's unspoken lesson has served me well: never, ever, allow those singing to lose the feeling your are watching them personally,and........ if you do it is either because 'you' are not sufficiently familiar with the music, of that 'they' have not been rehearsed well enough.

 

Tony

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One can flog oneself to death out there, when one should really have rehearsed the piece more thoroughly and made sure the singers were watching.

 

That's certainy true. Thorough rehearsal is a bugbear of mine. I could name one choir where (unless things have changed) interpretation is never mentioned. Rehearsals deal with notes, speeds and maybe dynamics, but everything else is left to chance - with predictably mixed results.

 

At the last concert I accompanied the business of providing sufficient support for the choir meant that, most of the time, I could barely hear them and the rest of the time not at all. Moreover my only visual link with the conductor was via a tiny CCTV with a screen hardly larger than a credit card. I was very grateful that he was conducting properly!

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I hope nobody is silly enough to think that by conducting an average sized church or chamber choir exactly the same way - and with the exactly same sort of technique - as Boult would have conducted a full size symphony orchestra they will ever get a good musical result from their choir. What they will not get is good phrasing, vocalic flow or intonation.

 

No, of course not.

 

Interestingly, Jordon also says that as a conductor you never get good results by trying to control either the music or the performers and that you need to be open, centred and, above all, vulnerable.

 

Well, this seems to contradict what I have just written. I would be very interested if you could expand a bit on this, Malcolm. I'm certainly aware that it's possible to make a choir "over-sing" by over-conducting, but I'm having some difficulty imagining how you can get a coherent interpretation if you don't impart to the singers, by some means or other, exactly what you expect them to do. Personally I'd call that control. Perhaps I should buy the books, but I've currently no aspiration to conduct choirs again.

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The books are quite expensive but the DVDs and videos are not and usually arrive quite quickly. I'm very happy to discuss with Vox H over the phone sometime if he wants to; he knows where to locate my phone numbers. Let's give a very simple and obvious example which, now I think of it, ties with my own organ teaching technique.

 

Suppose you regularly make a choir of any standard or composition rehearse every verse of every hymn and go over every tiny aspect of every verse in detail the most likely result, frankly, is that within three weeks you won't have a choir and very likely you will be out of a job. If you pick one verse of one hymn or even, if you are very daring, single verses out of two contrasting hymns and work on them in detail and then say to the choir now apply what we've just done with this verse to the other verses they will take personal ownership of it and do their best to get it right. They might even like you and want to come back next week because the rehearsal will have been varied and you have shown that you trust them to apply what they have done with one verse to the other verses. To use modern management parlance they will have taken "ownership" of the problem. If they don't, well, then you just keep on trying until they do. In some choirs some of them may even be better musicians than the conductor. Really it's all about personal relationships which is actually what Tony Price is saying above; he sang well and "gave his all" for Harry Bramma to a large extent because he felt Harry was interested in him as a person. James Jordan qiote a similar situation with Elaine Brown when she took her first rehearsal of a choir he sang in; every member of the choir felt she was engaged with and interested in every member of that choir and so they all sang well for her. There's a marvellous (non-musical) book called Lessons of the Masters by George Steiner which develops in details the necessity of the right "chemistry" between master and student in any situation. Really it's all so easy and obvious and yet we all fail sometimes and some of us have faile dmore than others.

 

You won't change the sound or standard of a choir overnight; it frequently takes several years if you have only weekly rehearsals with them. As a number of people have said on this and other forums many times, it takes years to build up a good choir and it takes a new vicar or even a PCC less than one day to ruin it.

 

I would add that two of the finest choral conductors I have witnessed in action over the last year were Andy Lumsden and Simon Bell at the SCF.

 

Malcolm

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Many thanks, Malcolm. Now I see what you mean by "control", which is far in excess of what I had in mind. Mercifully, I think and hope the method you have outlined is very much the way I do things. It's basically not that different from what they tried to instill into me during my teacher training college year, which boiled down to developing students' minds and their ability to think, rather than stultifying them with heavy-handedness. I definitely think the psychology of teaching is equally applicable to choir training.

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Thanks, Vox. For anyone who has any involvement with teaching or musical direction of any kind I would recommend in the strongest terms that, if you buy nothing else from GIA you get and read the quite small and short book "The Musician's Soul" by James Jordan which talks about all this and also spends a lot of time on mimetics as defined by Rene Girard. There are some very moving and personal appendix chapters written by three of his colleagues. Another, non-musical, book I have only recently discovered although it seems to be quite a cult publicaton, albeit less readable is "The Courage to teach" by Parker J Palmer.

 

M

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Then there are those who manage to get wonderful results against all odds. There was a wizard in Belfast called Ronnie Lee. He was the first person to win the Sainsbury Competition twice with different choirs. No one knew how he did it, and he himself was never able to explain. The choir would pick up a piece and sing it through. There would be a pause, Ronnie would say, 'Ye-----s', they would sing it again, and it would be damn near perfect. He really had no conducting technique at all - but he did have big expressive pale eyes - maybe that was it. He apparently had his 'own' seat in the chapel at King's, and when he died John Rutter came over to Belfast for the funeral......

 

 

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"Against all the odds" must apply to the truly brilliant days of Russell Burgess at Wandsworth Comprehensive.

 

I don't know what his special quality was, but so brilliant were the results, the Wandsworth Boys Choir rose to international fame, and they even had Benjamin Britten writing music for them.

 

I recall a famous anecdote, when they recorded the St John Passion by Bach.

 

The story goes, that during a break, groups of boys were just sitting around crying and comforting each other; so powerful was the effect of the music and the performance.

 

Martin How could inspire like no-one else I've ever come across, but I suspect that the late, (he is late incidentally), Russell Burgess was the ultimatechoral trainer/conductor, the likes of which have never been seen before or since.

 

That said, "Libera" are fairly extraordinary.

 

Did anyone ever know him or sing under Russell Burgess's direction, I wonder?

 

There is just one "You Tube" clip of them in their heyday, which is here:-

 

 

MM

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===================================

 

"Against all the odds" must apply to the truly brilliant days of Russell Burgess at Wandsworth Comprehensive.

 

I don't know what his special quality was, but so brilliant were the results, the Wandsworth Boys Choir rose to international fame, and they even had Benjamin Britten writing music for them.

 

I recall a famous anecdote, when they recorded the St John Passion by Bach.

 

The story goes, that during a break, groups of boys were just sitting around crying and comforting each other; so powerful was the effect of the music and the performance.

 

Martin How could inspire like no-one else I've ever come across, but I suspect that the late, (he is late incidentally), Russell Burgess was the ultimatechoral trainer/conductor, the likes of which have never been seen before or since.

 

That said, "Libera" are fairly extraordinary.

 

Did anyone ever know him or sing under Russell Burgess's direction, I wonder?

 

There is just one "You Tube" clip of them in their heyday, which is here:-

 

 

MM

 

 

===================================

 

 

Adding to my previous post, I discovered a single item from the St John Passion, conducted by Britten, with the Wandsworth School Choir.

 

The purity and balance of the boy's voices is just startling.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6prxA7R-5fM

 

MM

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The boys' singing in this chorus from the St John Passion is absolutely and movingly beautiful. Quite different from the sound that, for example, John Birch used to get from his Chichester boys which was equally moving and beautiful, but the fact that two very different sounds are both so wonderful doesn't detract in any way from either.

 

Thank you MM for posting this most recent link.

 

Malcolm

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Having, at last, found the sign-in field, I have to say that, on listening again, I cannot recognise the comments above. The sheer sense of line in the singing in addition to the sense and proportion of every word from the choir is a lesson in choral unity. It is also wonderful to observe that less can be far more in conducting a well drilled choir.

 

Having downloaded the video and watched it on full screen through a different medial player, there are many things which concern me - not least the ponderous, even tedious, speed of virtually all of the congregational carols - and the slow-up at the end of the play-over of While Shepherds Watched - followed by a long gathering-note (chord). In fact, the slowness of the speed of the hymns alone mitigates against maintaining a good 'line' - there are a number of places where there are inappropriate breaks (due the the choir taking a breath). These actually hinder the sense of the words, since, in a number of cases, they ignore the punctuation.

 

I would agree with MM regarding the tone of the boys, although this was probably quite normal at this time - and had been for decades.

 

It is interesting to note that even then, the 32ft. Double Ophicleide was reserved for the last chord of some of the louder congregational carols. If it is that loud, perhaps it was time it was re-voiced, on a somewhat lower pressure and with thinner tongues.

 

The last verse of O Come, all ye Faithful (complete with odd edit) was rather disappointing. If the boys could attempt a descant in the final verse of While Shepherds Watched (after a verse featuring the Solo Tuba, for some reason), why not also in Sing Choirs of Angels?

 

I wonder what the choir thought of the new regime under Willcocks? For surley, even within the first few months, the change in the sound alone must have been blatantly obvious to the youngest chorister.

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The boys' singing in this chorus from the St John Passion is absolutely and movingly beautiful. Quite different from the sound that, for example, John Birch used to get from his Chichester boys which was equally moving and beautiful, but the fact that two very different sounds are both so wonderful doesn't detract in any way from either.

 

Thank you MM for posting this most recent link.

 

Malcolm

 

=-============================

 

 

 

Indeed, John Birch enjoyed something of a l;egendary status as a choral trainer at Chichester, but being "deep south" it was far too remote to have any influence on me.

 

However, through the wonderful Decca label recordings, the Wandsworth choir certainly had an impact far and wide, and whilst I can't verify the facts, I seem to recall that Britten wrote "Noyes Flood" specifically for them.

 

I well remember the very real shock-wave which rocked the musical community when Russell Buirgess died very suddenly, (I think it was a massive heart-attack). He was just 48 years of age, but had crammed more into his short life than most manage in 80 years: the Isambard Kindgom Brunel of the musical world.

 

My own school choir was rather exceptional, but nothing could touch Wandsworth in those days.

 

It rather begs the question as to which bright set of sparks ever thought it a "progressive" idea to ditch school-choirs, which are now very few in number outside the religious institutions. I'm quite sure that the eloquence of older generations, which seemed to end with mine, derived as much from choral singing as it did from liturgy.

 

Sadly, almost nothing is written about Russell Burgess on the net.

 

MM

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Having downloaded the video and watched it on full screen through a different medial player, there are many things which concern me - not least the ponderous, even tedious, speed of virtually all of the congregational carols - and the slow-up at the end of the play-over of While Shepherds Watched - followed by a long gathering-note (chord). In fact, the slowness of the speed of the hymns alone mitigates against maintaining a good 'line' - there are a number of places where there are inappropriate breaks (due the the choir taking a breath). These actually hinder the sense of the words, since, in a number of cases, they ignore the punctuation.

 

I would agree with MM regarding the tone of the boys, although this was probably quite normal at this time - and had been for decades.

 

It is interesting to note that even then, the 32ft. Double Ophicleide was reserved for the last chord of some of the louder congregational carols. If it is that loud, perhaps it was time it was re-voiced, on a somewhat lower pressure and with thinner tongues.

 

The last verse of O Come, all ye Faithful (complete with odd edit) was rather disappointing. If the boys could attempt a descant in the final verse of While Shepherds Watched (after a verse featuring the Solo Tuba, for some reason), why not also in Sing Choirs of Angels?

 

I wonder what the choir thought of the new regime under Willcocks? For surley, even within the first few months, the change in the sound alone must have been blatantly obvious to the youngest chorister.

 

 

==============================

 

 

I'm glad that someone more or less agrees with me. The tone was, I think, fairly typical of the day, but I'm not old enough to remember it. Certainly, there was a sort of accepted presciousness of tone.....call it the Anglican establishment sound.....which was swept away in the 1960's fairly swiftly; giving way to some vibrant singing under people like George Guest, Sir David Wilcocks and, of course, Russell Burgess and the Wandsworth School Choir. Those three names probably established English choral-music at the very forefront internationally.

 

Sadly, it arrived too late to make much of an impact on parish music, and the overall quality was not very good, even if a few choirs stood out from the rest.

 

MM

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I should imagine that the reason there's no descant to 'Sing choirs of angels' is that Boris hadn't encountered one. I remember one from boyhood, and there's another in A&M Revised, but if there had been one in traditional use at king's, David Willcocks would probably not have written his. I don't think collegiate and cathedral choirs bothered much with descants - or, indeed, hymns - in those days. 'While shepherds watched' has been around for a very long time, together with various descant and faburden versions. (I have just realised that I have probably shot down my own reasoning, in that Willcocks later wrote his own descant for 'While shepherds watched', but maybe that was aimed more at 'Carols for Choirs 2' than King's).

 

Has anyone else not had their Carol Service yet? Ours in on Sunday evening (New Year's Day, so strictly speaking there's been no Carol Service at all in 2011, but there will be two in 2012!).

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I should imagine that the reason there's no descant to 'Sing choirs of angels' is that Boris hadn't encountered one. I remember one from boyhood, and there's another in A&M Revised, but if there had been one in traditional use at king's, David Willcocks would probably not have written his. I don't think collegiate and cathedral choirs bothered much with descants - or, indeed, hymns - in those days. 'While shepherds watched' has been around for a very long time, together with various descant and faburden versions. (I have just realised that I have probably shot down my own reasoning, in that Willcocks later wrote his own descant for 'While shepherds watched', but maybe that was aimed more at 'Carols for Choirs 2' than King's).

 

As you write, you may have shot down your own reasoning, David. I am still puzzled. The descant used for While Shepherds Watched is one which I have not encountered before. I would still suggest that this might have been 'home-grown'; therefore, surely Boris Ord could have written one for Sing, choirs of Angels?

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The descant used for While Shepherds Watched is one which I have not encountered before. I would still suggest that this might have been 'home-grown'

 

Cambridge-grown, almost certainly. It is by Alan Gray. I like its no-fuss directness and prefer it to others I have heard. The opening can sound quite electrifying when done well. You can find it in the New English Hymnal (1986) and also in Hymns for Church and School.

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Having just watched the Boris Ord Carol service, I must say that I found it beautiful. Okay, the hymns are sung the way people did then - gathering notes and all. How refreshing, though, not to have a conductor flapping around in them. Why do hymns have to be conducted now? (A discreet beat at the beginning of each verse is one thing, but those conductors who conduct hymns as if they were conducting the Hallelujah Chorus rather than a congregational hymn annoy me.)

 

Tuning seems pretty good to me but it's impossible to tell with this quavery sound. Certainly doesn't sound like King's College Chapel. I think the boys' tone is many times more lively than it became under Willcocks (much as I respect him). Plenty of drama for me - listen to A Virgin most pure. Beautiful phrasing. I don't think cathedral choirs these days (however beautiful a sense of line they may have) phrase in such a musical way. Just as, in my view, no choir has approached the Temple Church choir in musical and sensitive hymn singing.

 

Of course, in those days, choirs sang carols rather than "carol arrangements". Seems a bit dull now, but I think the balance has swung a bit too far - although I'm probably in a minority of one. The Carols for Choirs books are great (especially No. 1) but perhaps a bit of simplicity isn't a bad thing.

 

But what I really, really like is that it is a service, not a production staged for the benefit of television cameras. That's partly due to the minimal conducting.

 

I think I would have been very moved if I had been there.

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Having just watched the Boris Ord Carol service, I must say that I found it beautiful. .....

 

I watched it several times and found everything admirable in its own way of that time; I also admired the wonderful delivery of the readings.

 

One thing that I particularly noted was the matching organ sound to the hymn words for mighty dread had seized....full swell plus sub octave??

 

The conductor has to fit in with solemnity of the service, it's not a concert; the gentle nod, the meaningful look, the subtle hand and helpful finger are all that is required.

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As you write, you may have shot down your own reasoning, David. I am still puzzled. The descant used for While Shepherds Watched is one which I have not encountered before. I would still suggest that this might have been 'home-grown'; therefore, surely Boris Ord could have written one for Sing, choirs of Angels?

 

As far as I know, the only piece of choral music known to have been written by Boris Ord is 'Adam lay ybounden'. I've never heard of any descants. I think it's just that they didn't go in for descants in such a big way in those days. David Willcocks is certainly on record as saying that he wrote his earlier ones as a way to add interest to the hymns.

 

The whole service was a lot simpler than it later became, and perhaps this is typified in the music. Each generation, even each year, some little innovation was introduced, some of which became fixtures. I sometimes think that carol arrangements can get so complicated that they lose their original simple character. I've been listening to 'On Christmas Night', with Andrew Nethsingha and St. John's (the other St. John's, from my point of view!). A very fine disc indeed, both chorally and organ-wise (nice blast on the Kazoo at the end of Ledger's 'Sussex Carol'), but is Mack Wilberg's 'Ding dong merrily on high' really an improvement on the 'straight' version (the interludes between verses are nearly as long as the verses themselves, although they feature a nice bit of Tuba). Is Willcocks' ditto ditto? Donald Cashmore's elaboration of 'Es ist ein Ros' is an excelllent piece of work but, at least sometimes, perhaps plain old Praetorius would be at least as effective.

 

No criticism here intended of St. John's and AN - it's one of the best Christmas discs I've heard for a long time - just a thought about carol arrangements. The soloist in 'In the bleak Darke' is Julian Gregory. Makes me feel old - I played for his parents' wedding....

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Why do hymns have to be conducted now? (A discreet beat at the beginning of each verse is one thing, but those conductors who conduct hymns as if they were conducting the Hallelujah Chorus rather than a congregational hymn annoy me.)

 

Agreed! :)

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I watched it several times and found everything admirable in its own way of that time; I also admired the wonderful delivery of the readings.

 

One thing that I particularly noted was the matching organ sound to the hymn words for mighty dread had seized....full swell plus sub octave??

 

The conductor has to fit in with solemnity of the service, it's not a concert; the gentle nod, the meaningful look, the subtle hand and helpful finger are that is required.

 

 

===========================

 

 

I am reminded of an old Anglican Rector, who spoke rather like this.

 

Famously, when it came to "He that hath ear to hear," it came out as, "He that hath years to year, let him year."

 

It was more wonderous than wonderful, but it raised a smile every time.

 

MM

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Agreed! :)

 

=======================

 

 

I would NEVER allow anyone to conduct or even beat-in the verses of hymns. If an organist can't exercise proper crowd-control, they should be sacked.

 

My congregations wouldn't DARE step out of line! <_<

 

MM

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=======================

 

 

I would NEVER allow anyone to conduct or even beat-in the verses of hymns. If an organist can't exercise proper crowd-control, they should be sacked.

 

My congregations wouldn't DARE step out of line! <_<

 

MM

But if you play for a cathedral choir (or even a visiting choir in a cathedral) you may well have to put up with it.

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