Rewind: An Advent Reflection
This piece was presented in worship as a statement of faith on the First Sunday of Advent, 2015. It first appeared on this site at that same time.
Listening… Watching… Waiting… Themes which permeate the weeks of Advent. Themes which a choir director like me studies and hones his whole career.
Everyone in my profession dreads the casual conversation starter or occasional blog post that ponders “What does the conductor actually do?” and “Would they sing just as well without you there?” Why the dread? I venture to think it has a lot to do with the highly subjective nature of this craft. I know the answer, and my choir knows the answer, but how can an audience be convinced to reach the same conclusion?
The most talented conductors, the ones people like me aspire to reach, rarely stick to the basic rudiments of conducting that we have been taught. If you watch many of the best, you’ll rarely see an entire measure of the beat patterns that we’re all taught early on. As with so many disciplines, there is a core set of tools that must be universal if I’m to step in front of any group and immediately work with them. But what sets that certain group of elite musicians apart from the rest? Their ability to wait, to watch, and to listen. There’s a beautiful moment where the conductor throws a gesture into space, not knowing if the ensemble will respond at all, and a split-second later, the bounced back sound is so perfect, so elegant, that you can read that smirking, conductor smile, confirming that all went as planned. What a wonderful feeling to be involved in that moment, as both conductor and singer.
Listening. Now there’s the real challenge to a musician. In regular life our goal is always to stay focused on one thing at a time. We hear charges to “block out the noise” of the world, both aural and visual. We are told that we will have better results if we can stay trained on one stimulus at a time.
My, how this goes against the requirements of the conductor and ensemble musician. If we follow these lessons of the world, we’d focus on our part exclusively and never hear the rest of the group, potentially with tragic results. That’s why it’s so difficult, and important, to force ourselves to listen to each other. It’s very common that I implore the choir to “listen across the room”. They’ve worked with me long enough to know what I mean in saying this, and the results are dramatic, for following this advice requires each singer to continue singing his or her part, while focusing on a different voice, despite the resulting collisions in pitch, rising vs. falling, loud vs. soft, and so on. This is not easy to remember to do, because it is so much easier to live a life focused on your own voice part. But, I can tell you that when they follow this advice, entrances are more in sync, tuning locks in immediately, and the resulting sound is as with one voice. A study released this summer, in fact, found that singers following this sort of discipline will reach a state of shared heart rate.
The choir director is required to listen to 4-, 8-, 12- parts at a time, both for the purposes of diagnosing issues to rehearse later, and in order to determine the best response to the sound in the moment, because we don’t actually get a chance to make any sound on our own during performance. The entire goal is to listen well enough as to make these responses in time for the next wonderful moment.
Any collection of singers has an inherent level of talent. But what sets a really fine ensemble apart from the rest, is not the conductor’s beat pattern, but rather a group working as one. You can be sure it is due to the intentional practice of these Advent themes: listening, watching, and waiting.