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  • Chris Anderson

Trying Something Different

Trying Something Different

One of my least favourite phrases is “I/We have always done it this way.” As a musical director, theatre director and indeed conductor I believe it is my duty to put my own stamp on whatever project I’m working on. It’s not about reinventing the wheel, but it is important to be original. If you “always do things this way” you’re not growing or progressing. If you’re not growing or progressing…what’s the point?

Fear Of Change

A long running group may struggle with a new Musical Director coming in because they’ve loved working with the previous one. I know of one conductor who took up the baton of a well established group only to be met with conflict at every turn. The players resisted any form of new direction, and often stated that “[They’d] always played it this way.” I remember on one job I’d changed the way the singers were grouped. Rather than SATB, I did 1,2,3,4; which was a technique the MD at theatre school used. I wanted to do it this way to ensure I had a balance of harmonies. The group was particularly heavy in one area and very thin on the ground elsewhere. The chairperson came up to me and requested that we did SATB because “…that’s how we’ve always done it.”

As the director of SSOCs, there is no “We’ve always done it this way” because it’s my group. However, I am occasionally met with similar things from singers and players who fall into their old way of doing things. They’ll play at the speed they’ve always played it at, or they’ll sing it in exactly the same way as they have previously. That is almost acceptable because it is easy to fall back onto that which is already known. But not doing something because it’s different is like just eating the same meal for every meal every day of your life. Don’t fear change, embrace it. Don’t be afraid to try something new. The only thing you should always do is your best.

Liza Minelli - First rate version of herself
Photo from wikipedia

Second Rate Versions

Judy Garland said to her daughter, Liza Minelli, that “It is better to be a first rate version of yourself rather than a second rate version of someone else.” Sadly I know of far too many amateur directors, conductors, musical directors, and actors who “do it by YouTube”. But there are also people who claim to be professional or semi-professional, that do the same thing! They’ll watch a performance on YouTube (or listen to one) and then they’ll just copy what they see or hear. Sure, get inspired by a performance but don’t just copy it. You’re not being creative, you’re copying. Yes, the version you’re copying may be amazing so why change it? But surely you got into all this stuff because you want to be creative…or maybe you just want the applause to feed your ego and so will just cut corners to get there?

The trouble is I know that I am in a minority with this view. I know that many people will say that as along as they’re giving people entertainment or getting the job done, it doesn’t matter. They may also think that “…The audience won’t know, so what does it matter?” On the face of it, it doesn’t matter, much like my opinion on this doesn’t matter. The thing is though I couldn’t in all good conscience charge people good money for something that could be construed as a second rate version. Yes your players/performers are different but to copy an interpretation…well that leaves me cold.


I always get excited when I discover new versions of things. Nigel Kennedy’s version of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” blew me away. Here was a man who took a world famous piece of music and totally made it his own. John Rutter’s version on his recording of “For Unto Us A Child Is Born” made me stop everything I was doing and had me in tears. Hearing an orchestral version of one of my favourite piano pieces took me by surprise. I could go on, but suffice it to say that all these versions were completely different to anything I’d heard before. It was refreshing. It was exciting. The thing is that we aren’t always going to like something different, but at least give it a go.

When I was Musical Director for Oliver, when it came to “As Long As He Needs Me” I was determined not to trot out the same old versions you always hear. I wanted to experiment with the story of the song, and the dynamics. It’s “traditional” that the singer belts out the last bit and whilst that may be impressive unless there is a genuine connection with the words and music by the performer, it just turns into a showcase for impressive pipes. Whatever I direct (musically or otherwise) there has to be a reason for the choice - and the answer “it was written like that” isn’t enough. We tried reducing the volume but because there was no connection it didn’t work - so we resorted to a show piece with no feeling.

Being Creative

There’s no point in just doing what gets done all the time. If you do that it becomes like a kind of karaoke. Even singers and bands when they do a live concert will often change it up a little bit and throw a curveball with an arrangement or interpretation. Paul McCartney at Glastonbury is a case in point. He showed a ukulele and started to sing “Something” in a very, some would say, cheesy manner. Half way through - BANG - it turned into the version we all knew. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we should be different for the sake of being different (though that’s not a bad thing either). What I am saying though is that we’ve been given a gift and it is our duty to use it fully.

I love experimenting with different sounds. I love changing speeds. I love analysing a score and seeing how it all links together and how I can put my own mark on something. Yes, it is highly likely that an audience will appreciate what you give them but why be lazy? Why just rip-off someone else’s work? Why not think about how you can make it your own on a deeper level rather than just because you’ve got different singers. Of course you have to make sure that your “different” fits in with the feel of the concert or occasion. And yes, it is likely you’ll get some people going “Ooh it’s different, I don’t like it.” But at least you’ve tried to be creative and different and give people something new.

“Pre-conceived ideas are the death of creation/creativity...and copying is just as bad”

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