Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Stories from the Professional Theatre Training Program: Michelle Suzanne

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.

(May 19, 2016)  Now that half of my mentorship with Hilary Donaldson is behind me, I see how much I have grown in skill and confidence. Knowing this, I look forward to what else is possible by the time my mentorship period is over.

I have learned that the preparation of a piece is crucial to teaching it to an ensemble. With that in mind Hilary taught me how to do a pedagogical analysis of music. It takes at least a good hour, and it is well worth the time. It forces the conductor to zero in on where problematic issues in the piece may crop up—be they tempo, text, vocal range, diction. It allows the conductor to troubleshoot before rehearsal, so as to maximize everyone’s time and energy.

My first pedagogical analysis was for a fabulous gospel number by Charles Albert Tindley, called “The Storm Is Passing Over.” I will make use of this analysis as I conduct the Eastminster United Church Choir singing “The Storm Is Passing Over” in this evening’s rehearsal.

Along with preparation, I have learned how to help develop a choir’s sense of musicality by drilling problematic music passages. This has happened with using pentatonic and diatonic scales to form purer vowels (no diphthongs!) with vocalizing on an applicable vowel, and by “count-singing.” In fact, Hilary and I agreed that there is opportunity for me to assist the choir in the Fall with vocal and rhythmic drills.

A conductor must also be able to work effectively with the accompanist. Hilary and I had a discussion about the kind of terms often used between a conductor and pianist: words like “chording along” with the choir (but not playing the actual accompaniment), or “shadowing” a section. We also discussed the benefit of establishing with the accompanist ahead of time, the desired tempo.

I have also learned where a conductor goes for sheet music (beyond the basic but limited digital outlets I was sourcing). I now know about the Choral Public Domain Library and the International Music Scores Library Project.

Of course, in the midst of all of the reading, analyzing, listening and discussing, I’ve been learning the choral gestures—the most visible part of a conductor’s work. When I first began studying under Hilary I was greener than the buds popping up this Spring. I was concerned that the choral conducting gestures were not going to “get into my body.” Four-and-a-half weeks later I have those gestures down! It’s so exciting to feel the progress.

What is most interesting about what I’ve learned of conducting, so far, is that it’s the entry into the piece that is fraught with pitfalls. Once you actually show that first downbeat, the most difficult part is done—for me, at least. I discovered this as I tried to bring the choir of Eastminster United Church in on an a capella piece by Pepper Choplin, called “We Are Not Alone.” The piece is in 2/2 time which is, for me, the most challenging time signature to conduct. That’s because, with only two beats to every bar there is very little time to convey information to the choir.

So there we were, at our most recent choir rehearsal, and I was tasked with conducting this seemingly easy piece, for which I had practiced in my own time. It took several attempts before I could successfully bring the choir in, and maintain the gestures. (I will add that conducting is pretty straightforward without all those singers staring at you!) Finally, I was able to bring in the choir, the soloist, and keep the tempo, all the while demonstrating dynamics.

Still to come for me, is getting really comfortable adding my left arm—when required—for cues, for shaping and dynamics, and for held notes. Right now my left arm feels like a bizarre appendage that threatens to destabilize the good work of my right arm. I know this too shall improve with continued practice.

I am planning the music for Eastminster United’s church service on the final Sunday of June. One piece that I have chosen, and will conduct, is “A Song of Paul,” composed by Alfred V. Fedak. The piece is in 6/8, and conducted in two—my nemesis. But it’s amazing what can happen in these final four weeks. New learning gets integrated, old challenges seem simple, and suddenly you have a new skill.

I’m so excited by this mentorship period. I’m half-way through, and it still feels like the beginning. Conducting is something one can’t cram. It takes time to really integrate the elements, and to feel quite comfortable with the gestures. I’m so grateful that, as I enter the second half of this phase I feel well-armed with what I need to know in order to step confidently into more music leadership. Thank you so much for this, Theatre Ontario. 

Related Reading:

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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