On January 19th more than thirty keen musicians/teachers/conductors assembled at St. Kevin's College in Toorak to spend 6 days together working on developing their conducting skills, as well as exploring many matters related to ensemble teaching and direction, at ABODA Victoria's 30th annual conducting Summer School. The principal clinician was Prof. Craig Kirchoff from the University of Minnesota (USA). Prof. Kirchhoff is an internationally recognised conductor and conducting pedagogue having taught students at the undergraduate, and postgraduate levels for many decades and having been an invited specialist clinician for numerous conducting symposia, conferences, etc. Prof. Kirchhoff was assisted in the teaching of the course by two of his former students from Australia who had previously travelled to the USA to study with him: Melbourne-based conductor and educator, Ingrid Martin, who completed a Master's Degree with Craig in 2014, and myself (Prof. Rob McWilliams) as Yamaha's recently appointed Education Outreach Clinician who completed a Ph.D. with Craig in 1996. Having three clinicians with a unified philosophy and approach to the art of ensemble rehearsal and direction hopefully made for a very cohesive approach to instruction!
The first session of each day was a lecture/discussion format encompassing topics such as philosophical foundations, score study and preparation, repertoire selection, rehearsal techniques, etc. The second session divided the participants into three equal chamber groups to work on small, flexibly-scored musical excerpts that addressed particular conducting technique issues. The three clinicians rotated from group to group on a daily basis so each participant received feedback from all three clinicians as the week progressed.
The first afternoon session specifically addressed rehearsal techniques in a practical manner by having two volunteer participants work with the symposium ensemble with a focus on rehearsal strategy (rather than just conducting gesture). This approach helped raise typical issues that need to be addressed in a rehearsal, and generated many ideas for potential ways to work on, and make improvement, on these issues. On one of the days in this timeslot, Ingrid ran a very valuable session on basic string playing technique where everybody (most participants were not string players) had a chance to learn and apply basic string technique on a provided instrument. Not only was it somewhat humorous to see non-string players attempting to make some kind or respectable sound on a string instrument (!), Ingrid provided valuable insight into some of the connections and relationships between bowing and conducting gesture.
The remainder of the afternoons each day were spent with a rostered schedule of conducting participants who conducted the symposium ensemble, bolstered by guest musicians, with 10 minutes on the podium with Prof. Kirchhoff providing live feedback. Immediately following this, each participant then had a further video "debrief" with either Ingrid or Rob. This process enables the conducting participant to immediately see themselves and get further guidance from another clinician. Participants got to keep the video of these conducting slots, along with those from the small group sessions, on a USB for future reference.
Throughout the week it was great to see such a supportive environment for all participants, regardless of their ability level/experience, as well as some of the significant progress made from podium session to podium session. While it can be challenging to make substantial changes to physical conducting technique in such a short time, the value of knowing what to work on and how to work on it is of lasting significance to improve conducting and rehearsing skills. I would encourage anybody, at any level, that conducts an ensemble to seriously consider taking part in these kinds of activities. ABODA across Australia is a primary source in providing these professional development opportunities and I would similarly encourage anyone who leads ensembles (wind bands, orchestras, jazz ensembles, etc.) at an educational institution or at the community level, to join and become active members of this organization. As this was ABODA Victoria's 30th conducting school, they have refined the process and schedule to maximise the benefits to the participants – including a much-valued "rest day" between the 3rd and 4th days of the week-long event!
On a more personal note, it was great to reconnect with Craig for more than a fleeting "catch up" at events like the Midwest Band & Orchestra Clinic or College Band Director National Association conferences. I thoroughly enjoyed being part of the "team" for this event working alongside Craig and Ingrid and found it to be a great professional "refresher" for me as well.