More from Daniel Coyle: Tip#9 “To Build Soft Skills, Play Like a Skateboarder”
As Coyle says:
Soft skills catch our eye because they are beautiful. Picture the soccer star Lionel Messi improvising his way to a brilliant goal, or Jimi Hendrix blazing through a guitar solo, or Jon Stewart riffing through a comic monologue. These talents appear magical and unique. In fact they are the result of super-fast brain software recognizing patterns and responding in just the right way.While hard skills are better put together with measured precision, soft skills are built by playing and exploring inside challenging, ever-changing environments. These are places where you encounter different obstacles and respond to them over and over, building the network of sensitive wiring you need to read, recognize, and react. In other words, to build soft skills you should behave less like a careful carpenter and more like a skateboarder in a skateboard park: aggressive, curious, and experimental, always seeking new ways to challenge yourself.
After this, Coyle uses some great examples from Brazilian soccer players, Chicago’s Second City improvisational comedy troupe, and the (!) Brontë sisters to show how in different situations, flexibility and creativity are developed. He then closes with:
When you practice a soft skill, focus on making a high number of varied reps, and on getting clear feedback. Don’t worry too much about making errors—the important thing is to explore. Soft skills are often more fun to practice, but they’re also tougher because they demand that you coach yourself. After each session, ask yourself, What worked? What didn’t? And why?
As always, I highly recommend getting Coyle’s book yourself.
But the question is, how does this apply to a conductor? As recreative artists, where does our own creativity come in?
One is in learning how to be expressive and teaching your singers the same. Of course we all bring our training and lifetime in music (however long that is!) to our understanding of interpretation, whether generally or specifically in understanding performance in various periods, national styles, the particular style of an individual composer, languages, poetry, expressive diction, vocal color, varied use of vibrato, etc., etc. This is part of our never-ending learning process, which also includes listening to great artists (not just great choirs), whether singers or instrumentalists, or conductors of the past or present (one of the great things about the wealth of recordings available to us). This never-ending learning process is one of the reasons I love what I do . . . no worries that I can learn it all—and I should never get bored!
In your own preparation then, as you learn a particular piece of music, besides the usual research about the music, composer, and text, once you begin to really learn the piece, it’s time to experiment (without worrying, as Coyle says, about errors) with different tempi (and variation in tempi, ritardando/accelerando, and rubato), shapes of phrases, colors, articulations, places to breathe, etc. I do this by literally singing phrases myself, but also purely in my own internal musical imagination (which is a great thing to develop—the ability to imagine and hear the whole score: texture, voices, instruments, harmony, dynamics, etc.). Sometimes it can help to isolate different elements one at a time: experiment with articulation (legato, marcato, staccato and everything in between), with vocal color (bright to dark), and so on. With rubato, when is it appropriate, when not? How much rubato works with the composition—or does too much rubato destroy the structure of the music?
I’m having a great time with the Mozart Vesperae solennes de Dominica, which I’m doing with my Collegium Singers right now. It’s the much less known of the pair of Vespers settings Mozart wrote, and an absolutely wonderful piece. But it’s music which needs careful work to shape expressively: varied dynamics, articulations, attention to text (both meaning and diction) and text accent (which does not always fall on strong beats), length of final notes, and (of course) tempi. These all feed into phrase shape, which I think of as the heart and soul of expressive interpretation.
All of this experimentation gradually builds an interpretation. Now does this finalize it? Of course not! The ensemble will affect what you do—perhaps a tempo you’ve imagined simply doesn’t work. And the room where you sing will also make its own contribution. When I tour with choirs, the different rooms can make a big difference in tempi, in how much time you take at the end of a section of music. Music is a live art—it’s an interaction between you, the ensemble, room, and audience. I’ll always remember a concert in the Stanford University Chapel with the Choir of the West from PLU—and the great reaction of the choir to the room after we cut off the first chord we sang! For that particular performance I had to allow much more time at the end of sections and it made an impact on my tempi, as well. But any different room will have its own effect.
Another thing young conductors need is practice controlling what the ensemble does with just gesture (unless you’ve decided its fine to talk to your ensemble in performance!).
When rehearsing, even early in the process, particularly if you’re drilling a phrase or section of the music, start varying what you do (tempo, ritardando, dynamics) and show changes with your gesture, expecting the singers to follow. This gives you many more reps in learning how to control what the singers do with gesture alone. Don’t wait until the dress rehearsal to experiment! Do it as soon as you can—you can also explore your own creativity, exaggerate various things (dynamics, tempo rubato, etc.) that you’d never want to do in a performance.
But the idea is . . . find ways to practice your creativity as an interpretive artist!