Thursday, 20 October 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 trained in choral conducting and music direction with Hilary Donaldson in Toronto.

From Singing to Conducting

(September 19, 2016) Over the Spring season I was privileged to be granted a period of mentorship in choral conducting with musicologist doctoral candidate Hilary Donaldson. Over nine weeks I soaked up her knowledge and experience. My aim, in learning the art of conducting, was to grasp one of the foundational skills of music theatre direction. In time, when I have exited stage left as a performer, I will transition into musical direction. All of this takes time to develop the skills, leadership capability and confidence. And so my study period with Hilary has activated my preliminary steps down that path.

My previous two reports included some of the finer details of how I grappled with and eventually became proficient in the specifics of conducting gestures. I also outlined how Hilary taught me to prepare for rehearsals, to study a piece in its entirety, and to anticipate potential problematic passages within the piece. All of those lessons have sunk into me, and are vital components in the nitty-gritty of conducting. Perhaps one could say that those aspects of being a good conductor are the visible portions of the iceberg.

It is now the submerged portion of the iceberg that I wish to address—for this less visible aspect of conducting plays a remarkable role in how a conductor comes across. And it was over the final four weeks of my mentorship with Hilary that I was able to really consider and apply what she taught me about the art—as opposed, perhaps to the science—of conducting.

I learned from Hilary how much physical space a conductor requires in order to not only be seen, but also to effectively bring one’s full presence to conducting a piece. This is less about physicality, I have come to realize, than it is about psychology. As a singer of umpteen decades my confidence is very strong. And an audience can see and hear that in my performance. As a very newbie conductor in the making, it’s remarkable the difference: Hilary videotaped me in several of our rehearsals so that I could “read” my body language. As a conductor I revealed far less confidence  -understandably – and I took up considerably less space. 

And this is what I mean about there being a psychological component to my learning in the final phase of this mentorship period. Underlying is the question, “How much space do I have the right to take up?” It’s a poignant question—and one that women, in particular, have been asking ever since writer Virginia Woolf declared that a woman needs a “room of her own.” Hilary’s appeal to “take up more space” was not the first time I had been given such feedback. Very early in my career as a budding performer an artistic director for whom I hold the greatest regard gave me the same direction. “Make your physical universe larger; take up more space.” I so learned to—as a performer, mind you. 

Somehow I had shrunk myself as a conductor in training. And I’m grateful that Hilary picked up on this and brought it to my attention. Such are ways of conveying confidence (or a lack of it) that I hadn’t considered prior to this point in my study with Hilary. Because she came from a theatre background that includes dance, she was very effective in helping me adopt a conductor’s confidence-inspiring and commanding posture.

As a frequent listener to music of all kinds, I found myself conducting everything I listened to on my iPod as I enjoyed my morning hikes. The Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Lady Gaga, Faith Hill…all of these and many more artists were all conducted by me on those walks. And I really got the feeling for taking up more space with my posture, rib cage and arms. I also practiced being ‘small’ in comparison. That felt timid and apologetic. And, judging by some of the videos I watched of myself, it looked it too. 

And so I realized that the bulk of my remaining mentorship period was to resist any inclinations towards self-consciousness. Anyone who thinks this should come naturally is perhaps gifted with an abundance of self-esteem. In my case, it took work—not just at a physical level, but at a mental and emotional level too. Playing small—whether one is aware that that is what they are doing or not—is a form of apology, I think. I overcame that mindset by focusing on the virtues of learning a new skill, of respecting myself for making this choice, and of enlarging the scope of my leadership and musical capabilities.

On the final day of my mentorship period with Hilary I conducted the Eastminster United Church Choir during Sunday worship, as they sang the anthem “A Song of Paul.” The piece is composed by Alfred V. Fedak. It’s in 6/8 time, and conducted in two. As I stated in my two previous reports, conducting in 2 proved to be the most challenging of time signatures for me, and so I deliberately chose this piece to overcome that challenge. Although there were some minor butterflies, I felt well prepared on the day. The choir sang with heart and beauty, and I didn’t faint.

The following week rehearsals commenced for Hogtown, an audience-immersive theatrical piece performed in Toronto over the course of the Summer. I was charged with providing the musical direction for a cast of over forty. I simply couldn’t have taken on such a task were it not for the wonderful mentorship that I received from Hilary. She provided her expertise not only in the technical aspects of conducting, but also in its more subtle aspects – which are more psychologically fathomed. To her I owe a debt of gratitude. I am also very grateful to the Eastminster United Church Choir for allowing me to use portions of their rehearsal time to apply what I learned from Hilary. Finally, my utmost thanks goes to Theatre Ontario for providing me with the means to take this time of study. As I continue to grow in my musical leadership I will forever reflect on this time as a crucial step towards my goal of becoming a music director.

Related Reading:

The next application deadline for the Professional Theatre Training Program is March 1, 2017.

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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