Douglas Coombes MBE International Composer and Conductor
International conductor, composer, BBC producer, director, Dr Douglas Coombes MBE, current conductor of the Battle Proms at Blenheim Palace gives an enormous insight into his perspective as an international names.
He starts with memories of conducting lessons with Imogen Holst, daughter of Gustav Holst (The Planets fame). Imogen encouraged Douglas to never lose touch with his grass routes and there’s no doubt that through the many years that I’ve known Douglas, that really shines through.
Choral Conducting and Instrumental Conducting Preparation
He starts by discussing understanding and knowing your singers and instrumentalists. He tries to commit all scores to memory, inner-hearing the music. If he knows the music better than professional performers, even if they can play the violin better than him, that they can trust him. He tries to ensure that he can make eye contact with all musicians.
Conducting Choirs, Singers and Orchestras and Team Work
Douglas repeatedly returns to the concept of team work. He also discusses not overly managing groups, but actually “letting them play”. He can then focus on tuning and balance, depending on the acoustic. “Letting the music come to life” is core to Douglas’s work, not forcing, but helping it emerge. Douglas views himself not just as a leader, but as a team member and team player also.
Conducting Singers, Choir and Orchestras and Integrity
Integrity and honesty to the composer shines through Douglas’s perspectives. He believes that it is essential to know the composer’s background and where they were coming from when they composed a piece.
He also talks about listening, such as when singers in choirs are struggling for breath. He suggests the need for waiting on specific words or staggering breathing.
Piano Lessons and Teaching
Douglas, whose mum and dad were hairdressers, recounts how he had beginner piano lessons in the flat above the hairdressing salon. He had two hour lessons including movement activities that would alert the customers downstairs!
Inner Hearing Music
Part of Douglas’s preparation is hearing the ideal performance in his head. He says that shaving is a great moment for getting ideas! He then tries to hear the ideal performance with the specific singers, choirs or orchestras that he directs in his head. He compares what he imagines his specific performers would do against the ideal performance. He then pre-empts what they will do and what he needs to do, before these moments have even arisen.
Douglas’s discusses how Zoom has increased his understanding of body language. Choir rehearsals and singers on Zoom lead to new challenges because you cannot hear all the performers. Body language is something that Douglas has been studying carefully.
Singing Together, directed by Douglas for the BBC, would be recorded on a Saturday and it would be broadcast on a Monday. He knew without looking at people what their posture would be like, their concentration levels and he discusses the need for light-relief at specific moments. This is part of understanding your singers and choir.
(1) Know the score, know the phrasing and detail
(2) Imagine the ideal performance
(3) Imagine the performance by your singers, choir and orchestra
(4) Prepare to adapt and listen to your team.
The Finesse Choral and Orchestral Performance
Douglas returns to integrity to the composer. Douglas says, it’s when the composer would “stand up, shake your hand and say thank you”. He describes a piece of music as somebody’s baby. A musical arrangement is sharing a baby. He even discusses, “do not get in the way of the music” and relates this to a conductor’s body, posture and gesture. He discusses conducting workshops that he has directed. He discusses conductors who ‘talk to much’ because they are covering themselves because they don’t really know what they are doing and they are therefore getting in the way of the music itself.
In the Hall of the Mountain King is a pertinent illustration. He discusses how the composer, Grieg, wrote this in a connection to a play that has quite an evil story. Even with professional players, he tries to adapt the tone of the piece to gain this honesty and sincerity to the original motivation.
Conductors should not show off to the audience, but they should be both listening to the choir at the moment and imagining 4-5 bars ahead. As a pianist, he recommends the same.
(2) Don’t ‘get in the way of the music’
(3)Don’t exaggerate movements
(4) If a choir, singers or orchestra are doing really well, leave them to it and sit and listen! That is the ultimate in team work.
(5) Don’t let your mind drift or wander (although you can get finesse when this happens bizarrely). Douglas discusses that he didn’t have the opportunity to learn music at school. David Franklin, a bass soloist and opera singer, spoke to him about how he had a tight turn around, flights, taxis etc and how he didn’t recollect what he had sung at the end of a performance at Covent Garden.
(6) Perform with integrity and honesty to the composer. You must know the composer’s life, other works, historical context etc.
(7) Notation is only ever an approximation. Should a minim (half-beat) come off on the next beat or before? Consider context and realise that notation has context. Orchestral players know when to end phrases. Choral and singing conducting requires more care with phrasing.
(8) Consider if certain gestures work better for orchestras than choirs and whether they will alter tuning of singers. Consider if choral conducting can help string players in terms of breath relating to bow length and movement.
Recent Team Work Anecdotal stories
1812 Overture was part of Douglas’s conducting a week before this interview. He had to rescore it as there were less players under social distancing Covid restrictions. He discussed the difficulty of sustaining wind parts when the players are sat further apart.
Only the knowledgeable person will say, “I don’t know, help me”. Don’t bluster through. He discusses conductors who don’t know the score and that they ‘practise’ on the choirs or orchestras.
“Let’s do that again”. The answer to this must be, “why”. Performers need to know. Repetition has to have a focus or change.
Mozart Symphony No. 40 first movement has only 2 crescendos. One starts on the half-bar (measure). The performers look ahead and often start the crescendo too early, nearer to the beginning of the bar. Give the performers the reason to start on the half-bar: to build the excitement and don’t pre-empt it too early.
Don’t give the up-beat at a different tempo to the downbeat. If you have worked with a group a lot, the upbeat alone will bring a choir, singers or orchestra together.
It’s also interesting to ask a choir to “start anytime now” and let them listen to each other to build communication and awareness of the team.
Communication is important. Communicate with the music, the text, the conductor, each other and the audience.
Finally: Do Not Forget the Walt Disney Approach
Party on a car journey – have fun, smile at each other. Look around, forget special poses. “Show enjoyment and the audience will think it’s wonderful”.
Dr Robin Harrison, the interviewer, is a national level Choral Conductor, Orchestral Conductor, Adjudicator, Workshop Provider, Singing Teacher, Vocal Coach, Piano Teacher, Organ Teacher, all online and also face-to-face via: www.the-maestro-online.com
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