Thursday, 9 June 2016

Stories from the Professional Theatre Training Program: Michelle Suzanne – From Singing to Conducting

Our Professional Theatre Training Program (PTTP) offers financial support for unique and flexible training with a chosen mentor in any theatrical discipline (except performance.)

Michelle Suzanne is training in choral conducting and music direction with Hilary Donaldson in Toronto

(April 11, 2016)  Today began my first mentoring session with musicologist and doctoral candidate Hilary Donaldson. She is teaching me the art of choral conducting, which I will add to my tool kit as I emerge in the field of musical direction. My first period of study with Hilary will end on the final Sunday of June. By then I will be ready to take up the baton during music rehearsals for Hogtown, a Toronto audience-immersive show coming in the summer of 2016, for which I will be the music director.

I have really been looking forward to this time of learning with Hilary. In the years that I have sung under her music direction as a soloist and section lead in the Eastminster United Church Choir I have come to respect her scholarly knowledge, and her “gentle but firm” style of leadership. In preparation for our first session I read a large chunk of one of my textbooks, “Conducting Technique” by Brock McElheran.

Hilary and I then discussed crucial aspects of the conductor’s job. One thing that she impressed upon me—and which I have come to admire from her leadership as my choir director—is that the conductor must have a high degree of knowledge of the piece(s) s/he conducts. Beyond the basics of the composer’s name and the year of composition, a knowledgeable conductor will understand the broader context within which a piece was composed. And so the scholarly side of my brain will get a good work out as I research the pieces that I will be practicing my conducting technique with. This is an unexpected piece of learning that I am quite looking forward to.

We spent much of our first hour together practicing the most basic (read: “easy”) conducting gestures. Hmm, good thing we’re starting off with the “easy stuff” first. There’s a bit more to the gestures than I realized. It’s one thing to watch a conductor when you’re singing; it’s quite another to do the conducting. I realize already that conducting is like choreography for the hands. All I know is that choreographers run when they see my name on a cast list—and not without good reason. I can see that I will require several hours of home practice to get these gestures into my body so that they feel second nature to me in time. Thankfully, I need not step-touch or shuffle off to Buffalo while I’m conducting. 

This week I get to work on practicing conducting gestures and meter changes with Benjamin Britten’s “Rejoice in the Lamb,” Bell/Fedak’s “A Song of Paul’s” and Joseph Martin’s “A Day Made For Praise.”

I have confidence that I will become fluid and fluent in the conducting gestures, and I am so delighted to have embarked on this journey. I know how important this mentorship period is in developing my confidence and my skills as a leader in music theatre. I can’t wait to see what kind of growth I experience over the coming weeks. I look forward to updating you midway through this period. Many thanks to Theatre Ontario for enabling me to set out on this enriching new path.

The next application deadline for the Professional Theatre Training Program is October 3, 2016.

Theatre Ontario’s Professional Theatre Training Program is funded by the Ontario Arts Council, an agency of the Government of Ontario.

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