Sister Singers Network

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Self-Directed Chorus

Midge Stocker on Artemis Singers' Approach
Artemis is 21 years old now [2001], and we've been self-directed for the past 12-13 years. It's a very interesting process.

This is my personal thoughts on the subject, based on my experience with Artemis Singers, and may vary substantially with the opinions of other singers/directors.

Assigning teaching and conducting duties

Interestingly, this didn't really come up as a question until about a year ago. It's been pretty organic. Women who choose to direct Artemis Singers may direct one or many songs, and we may have six or more different directors during the course of any single performance. Our music is selected at meetings open to any member who chooses to participate. Any singer can propose a song at song selection. Generally when someone who is often a director suggests a song, she also winds up directing it, but not necessarily.

What we've been doing recently is this: At music selection, we make sure we have two or three songs to work on at the next rehearsal and that those songs have directors. Then anyone who wants to direct any of the other songs shows up early (or sends a proxy) for the first rehearsal after music selection, and whoever shows up then discusses and decides who will direct what. We've rarely had any serious conflict about who directs what.

The director of a song generally also teaches it. This past season we started having the director select a backup director for her song(s). This has several advantages:

  1. we don't then get stuck not being able to perform a particular song at a performance for which that particular director may not be available,
  2. we have backup for rehearsals in case of absences,
  3. it gives us leaders for section rehearsals (we don't have section leaders).

This past season we started a new method of teaching songs, sort of a rapid development model (which came to pass when we were working on the mass chorus songs for the festival . . .). For each song, we broke into sections and each section went two times (and two times only) through its own part; then we came back to the whole chorus and sang all parts together once or twice. From there we went on to polish, work trouble spots, etc, but we had a place to start from and we had a pretty good idea where the trouble spots were. It seems simple enough – and a good push down the road to sight reading for some – and somehow this season it started to work for us in a way it hadn't previously.

Coordinating Rehearsal Time

We have rehearsal schedulers, who are sometimes directors but for that past several years have not been directors. They take directors' personal schedules and suggestions into consideration, and they set the agenda for each rehearsal (with some flexibility) and let the directors know in advance when they'll be directing. A significant improvement for us a few years ago was the addition of pre-selected backup songs to the rehearsal's schedule; this allows much smoother processing when for some reason a scheduled song can't be rehearsed.

It would be unusual for us to have a single director for an entire rehearsal, though we've occasionally talked about doing it that way. One of the things we like about being self-directed is that it affords us a natural variety of styles, and that's kind of nice in rehearsal as well as in performance. It also means that if a director is having an off-night, she's not stuck.

Choosing Music

As mentioned above, our music is selected at meetings open to any member who chooses to participate. Not everyone brings suggested music, but everyone who attends gets a vote. We're always fiddling with trying to figure out how many votes a song needs in order to be selected; it depends on how many songs have been proposed, how many we want to select, how many people are at the meeting, etc. Selecting music seems much more challenging than deciding who will direct it.

The Positives And Negatives

We are committed to providing women with opportunities to develop their musical skills. No auditions are required for a singers to join the chorus. This leads to various challenges. We try to pair each new singer with a singing buddy – someone in her section to sit next to and ask questions. We have a number of singers at any given time who cannot read music, and a few years ago we started trying to help them learn to read music if they want to. We also try to sing music composed or arranged by members whenever we have a chance, to encourage development in that way.

Directing is the same sort of thing: a challenge and an opportunity. After the first year or so of being self-directed, the chorus had Rachel Alexander (founder of Sistrum) come and give a directing workshop, to which all members were encouraged to go (this was before I joined; I've only been in for 11 years). We've had her come back 3-4 times since then to get new members introduced to the concepts. It's been good for everyone – singers and directors alike – because when singers have a better idea what a director might be trying to indicate with those waving hands they tend to respond more appropriately.

The individual directors really do take ownership of their songs – which makes it really strange when someone leaves (as two did this past year) and the chorus wants to keep singing her song(s) – but the chorus has lots of input, particularly since the chorus includes other directors. Sometimes the lack of authority is troublesome, but mostly it works really well to bring women into their voices.

Making It Work

For successful self-direction, I think a group needs to have at least 2-3 women who are willing and reasonably capable of directing regularly. We've learned that it's important to be flexible and for the singers to understand that it's all a learning process – for singers and director together. Anyone who wants to direct can do so in Artemis, and we've only had a few times when someone who really couldn't do the job took it on. Happily, those people stopped directing before too long. On the flip side, we've had a few directors who developed from no experience into really good directors, and that's really fun to watch and participate in.

Coda

I personally really love directing. Every now and then someone suggests that we should get a director (because they think that would be easier for us), and I always resist because now that I get to do it I can hardly bear the thought of stopping. A magical thing happens when you stand in front of a group of women. The respect I feel for my sister singers when I'm directing them is enormous, and some of the things I get to see/hear in them moves me beyond words.

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