Modeling for Directors

By Ballou, Mary Jane | Sacred Music, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Modeling for Directors


Ballou, Mary Jane, Sacred Music


Then I talk about modeling in choral directing, there are no Dior turns or runways required. No need to summon your inner fashionista. Instead, modeling is a pedagogical method that prefers demonstration to description. You can model the way you want your choir to sound through gestures, through playing performances by other ensembles, with graphics, by singing the line the way you wish it to sound, and through metaphor and hyperbole. A quick Google search on "modeling in music education" will yield an ample supply of scholarly and practical information on the subject. My purpose is to pique your interest.

Conductors traditionally communicate with the choir through conducting gestures to cue entries and shape the melodic line. However, we often find that our "signals" are either ignored or completely misunderstood by our singers. When that happens, the temptation for directors is to talk. We try to "talk" our singers into the desired outcome. And we spend a lot of time doing that. A study found that forty percent of the rehearsal time for choruses was spent in speech. Sad to say, the one who's wasting the time is generally the director.

I'm talking about our futile attempts to convince the sopranos to lighten up, the altos to sing gracefully, the tenors to cease warbling, and the basses to find the right notes and sing in the octave we have in mind. When dealing with a volunteer choir, we often make our corrections indirectly to avoid singling out difficult singers. This expands the "talk ratio" and rarely fixes that problem in the second row. Directors often find themselves chattering to the choir about the music because they are frustrated--frustrated with seemingly irreparable intonation problems, persistent sluggish rhythms, and their own inability to get things moving forward. Here is where modeling can help. It replaces our exhortations with other forms of imagery and communication.

Instead of telling the singers what to do, show them what to do. You can do this in several ways. Draw shape of the musical line with your hand. Demonstrate the line for your singers, making sure that you sing it both correctly and beautifully. If you have an excellent singer and are not afraid of jealousy breaking out in the ranks, you can ask that individual to model the point you are trying to make.

Caveat: Never ever demonstrate what you don't want. It has been shown that the subconscious mind does not hear negations. When you tell your altos "Don't sing flat," the message that remains in their subconscious minds is "Sing flat." Definitely not the result you were after. It is enormously difficult to train yourself to use only positive directions and examples, but make the effort.

Another form of modeling is listening to excellent examples. While you may go home and curl up with the Tallis Scholars or the monks of Solesmes, it is unlikely that many of your singers do so. Find a recording of something you are working on or of a model ensemble. Take a few minutes and play a section of the piece during rehearsal. Both you and your singers may believe that it would be impossible to imitate a professional performance. The goal, however, is not imitation; it is inspiration. The listening exercise gives your singers something to emulate.

Modeling is not rote learning, because "rote" learning is teaching a work beyond the abilities of the ensemble and is imitation with no transfer of knowledge. Instead, modeling involves giving an example, which your singers can then use intelligently to improve their performance, not only of the specific passage but in other contexts. …

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