Winning the Arts Foundation was a hugely significant and incredibly proud moment for me. After the elation and delight had settled my initial thoughts about how to move forward with the Fellowship was somewhat fuelled with a heavy sense of expectation. As the first Choral Conductor to win the Award I very much felt that I needed to and also importantly wanted to ensure I created some sort of pathway for other choral conductors to look back at should this category be featured by the Arts Foundation again in the future. My first step after winning was to think a lot about what it actually means to be a ‘choral conductor’. Even though the choral tradition in the UK is over 500 years old, choral conducting as a recognised art and profession in it’s own right is in fact still relatively young.
In thinking about what the art of choral conducting is I wanted to ensure I had some sort of structure to how is was going to use the support of the Fellowship.
At around the same time as being awarded the fellowship I was also thrilled to start a new conducting post as Chorus Director with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. I am incredibly lucky to already be engaged in a fair amount of work and the award of the Fellowship offered me a wonderful opportunity to grow my craft as choral conductor alongside my current choral posts. Ultimately my desire was that my development as a choral conductor would support and enhance my work with all my various choirs now and in the future.
In the last decade or so there have been some wonderful choral conducting degrees and advanced courses that have emerged and the reality is that most of my colleagues and contemporary’s have studied on one of these courses. I was incredibly fortunate to begin working professionally as a Choral Conductor quickly and relatively young. However, and because of this I wasn’t able to peruse any form of advanced / formal study. With the support of the Fellowship I was able to look at various aspects to my conducting that might have had closer examination had I been on a full time course and thus have dedicated some time and importantly some cash to developing these.
One of the areas of Choral Conducting that I wanted to focus on improving was the practical side of conducting; conducting technique. I was able to use the support and Fellowship to find space have some regular-ish lessons and further my understanding of the practical sides of conducting. Having this space and dedicated time for lessons has greatly benefited me and the choirs I work with. It has become clear to me that having a more refined technique makes my work more efficient and effective as well as enabling me to express myself as a conductor to a much greater extent. Having lessons to refine my technique and having concentrated time assessing my work is something I am going to ensure I maintain as I move forward in my career.
Language and rhetoric has ever since I first started working in music remained a huge fascination of mine, especially the rather tough concept of how we convey words and meaning through music. Personally I think this is the single most engaging part of choral music. It is largely what defines choirs; how we can collectively find a vision for a piece of music, using the varying colours of our voices to find an interpretation that frees allows to text to speak through and with the music. More often than not the choirs I direct are required to sing in languages other than our mother tongue and part of my role is to offer guidance in this. I do feel that really to perform a work in a language other than our own, we must have it under our skin. With this very much in the forefront of my mind I was able, with the support of the fellowship begin taking language classes. Naturally this is a process that takes a long time, but my full intention is to continue this exploration and keep getting my hands dirty and developing my knowledge of languages.
Inspiration is one of the features and requirements of choral conducting that I find most interesting and prominent. We are all frequently required to stand up in front of groups of people. We must strive to guide and facilitate the choirs we work with to perform the music at the best and highest possible levels. For us too achieve this I believe it requires us to be what is ultimately described as an inspiration. I think one of the difficulties and dangers of working regularly and widely, is that we can perhaps become blinkered to what inspiration is and forget to seek fresh inspiration and new ideas for ourselves. Again, with the amazing support of the fellowship I found time in the summer to visit the Berlin Opera Chorus and observe how they work and how they are trained. The opera chorus world is one I hadn’t had a great amount of exposure or experience of and being able to spend time around a completely new music environment offered great inspiration and new ideas.
On a practical level I have been increasingly aware for a long time of the need and expectation to develop a profile for one’s self, committing time and investing in various promotional tools that can be used in a variety of ways. The Fellowship has allowed me to invest in having a very decent website as well as getting the promotional material such as photographs and videos. I have also been also to use some of the Fellowship to invest in new scores of music and literature that I can use to research the music I am performing.
I am incredibly grateful and proud to have been the first Choral Conductor to be awarded the Arts Foundation Award. As mentioned previously choral music is one of the oldest forms of art we have and it is very much the back bone of our wider classical music scene. Throughout the last first year of being a fellow, I look back on special moments of development and time where I have really worked my craft. However, this is a process that really must continue throughout my career and the work over last year has very much given me a framework on how to progress this.
Ultimately what I have found the most important and most progressive has been some of the thinking and discussions about what it fundamentally means be a choral conductor. Looking forward, I want to keep growing the craft and looking for exciting new ways to present choral music and make this glorious music just as relevant and meaningful today as was when it was first composed. My work at the National Portrait Gallery is very important for this and has been a great place to grow this. One of the most amazing things about last years awards ceremony was the showcase of different genres and the passion for them all that is present. I can’t help but feel that as we look forward as choral musicians and find new performances we must look collaborate and engage with other arts forms as this can only help and inform our own.
I am very excited about where this journey as a choral conductor might lead and I know that where ever it will be it will have been hugely down to and supported by being awarded the Arts Foundation Fellowship for Choral Conducting in 2015.