Case study: What is it like to have a new conductor during lockdown?

Alison Martin, chair of Crieff Choral Group, outlines how choir members got to grips with a new conductor during the first Covid lockdown. 


Last year, all choir members attended our penultimate pre-lockdown rehearsal for our spring concert scheduled for 29 March 2020. It was going to be our last performance with our retiring conductor of 18 years, Peter Rutterford, and retiring chairman, John Drummond, who had served on the committee for 20 years. 

Our rehearsal options were promptly limited as soon as the first lockdown was announced on 23 March, when we learned that the school we were to rehearse in had been closed. There followed a hilarious gathering in the pouring rain as choir members rocked up, returned their music scores, and wished each other a happy Easter before driving off into the deluge! Kind words were written in local papers, but neither Peter nor John could get the personal thank you they so richly deserved!

How did you go about searching for a new conductor?

As the incoming chair, I needed to start the process of looking for a new conductor before September, and the committee shared ideas via email. In theory, we needed to advertise, create a shortlist, and interview selected applicants before they tried conducting the choir. However, we couldn’t interview a new conductor in person during lockdown, nor could they hear us sing! 

In these strange times, I reverted to the age-old saying: ‘It’s not what you know; it’s who you know!’ I had heard that Pitlochry Choral Society had recently appointed a new conductor, Colleen Nicoll, who had sung as a soloist at our concerts. Colleen recommended Ulrike Wutscher, a fabulous soprano who had trained with her at Trinity Laban in London, and had completed a master's in choral conducting! The committee were unanimous — Ulrike was the one for us!

On the choir’s behalf, I attended a Making Music online event centred around running a choir during lockdown and rehearsing efficiently with Zoom. I also emailed Ulrike to offer her the role of conductor, which she graciously accepted – we all thought she was so brave to take on a choir whom she had never heard sing!

Mezzo-soprano Ulrike Wutscher, Crieff Choral's new conductor

What were your group's first steps with a new conductor?

Ulrike began suggesting pieces, factoring in the limitations of Zoom and her unfamiliarity with us as a choir. While she and the committee got to know each other over videocall, an uplifting programme taking in Austria, Germany and Scotland – Songs from the Hills – began to evolve.

Our choir were first introduced to Ulrike at the online Zoom AGM in September, when we were all eager to see each other’s faces! Although initially a little nervous, I was so pleased to see everyone conquering a new online platform, determined to sing again.

After the AGM we went into breakout rooms, which highlighted Crieff Choral as a socially cohesive community that exists not just for the function of singing – it goes deeper and plays a far more important role, especially after the isolating weeks of lockdown.

Our first proper rehearsal was the following week. After a physical and vocal warmup, Ulrike asked us to sing Mozart’s Ave verum corpus, which we had rehearsed for our cancelled spring concert. It was a piece we all knew well, leaving us to concentrate on the technicalities of Zoom. We soon discovered that our rusty voices thankfully could only be heard by our muted selves!

Have you made any changes to how you operate?

Ulrike has brought a wealth of new ideas to the group. We have set up a members’ YouTube channel which only choir members can access, where we upload the recorded rehearsals to follow for individual practice. These recordings are used as online resources for independent practice between rehearsals. We discovered that if you have very, very slow Wifi in the countryside (me!), it takes half your monthly data allowance to load up recordings onto YouTube, so our Secretary Morag helped by taking over these duties.

Our Treasurer Anne filled in online banking forms. Helen, in charge of grant applications, completed loads of online forms, uploading them to our Dropbox account and she has now secured three grants which can be deferred to our next live concert. Jayne, our music librarian, had already made a catalogue of song scores the choir owned, and she sent that list over for Ulrike to choose from. Other members will step into their roles when we can source advertising for programmes and put on a live concert. We could not have achieved what we have done since March without the hard work of our dedicated committee members, their efficiency in replying promptly to emails, and making decisions!

After choosing the pieces, Ulrike and her husband sang and recorded the different vocal parts, mixing and uploading them to YouTube for reference and invaluable independent rehearsal. Our pianist, Melvyn, recorded the accompaniments to be linked to Ulrike’s iPad, allowing her to search for a specific place in the score while staying in time with the accompaniment.

What are your plans for the near future?

Although due to the current spring 2021 lockdown, we cannot put on our March concert under Ulrike’s baton, we hope to meet in person in September and Ulrike has promised that our first live concert together in late November will be Songs from the Hills. This past year has been a learning curve, but one which we’re delighted to have embraced. Are Zoom rehearsals as good as singing in person? Not quite – but we can happily wait, safe in the knowledge that our choir is singing and thriving… 

Learn more about the story behind Crieff Choral’s current association with Violet Jacob’s 1915 poem ‘The Gean Trees', in partnership with PlaidSong and Helen MacKinnon.

Read our resource on working with your musical director during times of coronavirus.

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