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Syllabus for undergrad choral conducting

Dear Colleagues,

I recently queried the list about putting
together a plan for an undergraduate
choral-conducting class. For those who may wish
to refer to it, my original query is copied
below. For those who wish to go straight to the responses, they follow.

Query:

"While I've taught conducting for many years,
I've always done so without dividing the subject
into "choral" and "instrumental." I do both, and
while there are certain significant differences
in focus between them (instrumental
characteristics, vocal techniques, text,
differing tendencies in the routined-ness of
musicians, and so on), from my point of view they
are identical in terms of score study and physical gesture.

"I've now been asked to teach a one-semester
course in choral conducting, for final-year
undergraduate students who have had a
one-semester basic conducting course. (In that
class they conducted Bach chorales, movements
from Eine kleine Nachtmusik and several Mozart recitativi.)

"I would appreciate hearing suggestions
concerning topics, focus and repertoire for such
a class. There will be about a dozen students;
they include composers, performers and
music-educationists. There may be a few
opportunities during the semester to give them
brief experience with one of the university choruses."

Responses:

One of the most important things you can do
during this semester is to give them ways to
develop choral sound through healthy group vocal
techniques. I studied with Frauke Haasemann when
she was still in Germany. I highly recommend
getting her book through Hinshaw--Group vocal techniques.

* * *

Our students have one semester of Beginning
Conducting (I teach it to instrumentalists and
vocalists) and then budding choral conductors
take Choral Conducting with me. I've attached a syllabus for you.

(excerpts from syllabus):

Week 1 Choral Singing In Historical Perspective,
Video: Roots and Routes in Choral Music,
The importance of communication,
Score Study—A Macroanalytic View

Week 2 Gesture & Musical Expression,
Building a Relationship of Gesture to Sound

Week 3 Preparing for Music Making: Score Study--Renaissance

Week 4 Preparing for Music Making: Score Study—Baroque

Week 5 Conducting Projects: Renaissance
works (using singers brought into our class)

Week 6 Preparing for Music Making: Score Study—Classic & Romantic

Week 7 Preparing for Music Making: Score Study—Twentieth Century
lead vocalises with Community Chorus

Week 8 Conducting projects: Romantic and Contemporary works
Brahms Let Nothing, I Know Where
I’m Goin’ arr. Hall, Deck the Hall, arr. McKelvy

Week 9 The Tools of a Choral Musician
Rehearse Community Chorus

Week 10 Conducting projects: Byrd Non
Nobis Domine, Moe Call to Worship
Rehearse Community Chorus

Week 11 Exploring the Web: , , ,
Rehearse Community Chorus

Week 12 Conducting projects: Halsey
Stevens Go Lovely Rose, Moe Mini Gloria
Rehearse Community Chorus

Week 13 Developing Musical Skills and Responsiveness
Conducting projects: Mozart Luci
Care, Pilkington Rest Sweet Nymphs

Week 14 Conducting: Your Movement
Potential and Conducting—An application of the
work of Rudolf von Laban for Conductors, from Evoking Sound

Week 15 Food for the soul--choral
masterworks: Bach B-minor Mass, Brahms Requiem,
Stravinsky Symphony Of Psalms, Frank Martin Mass

Week 16 15-minute lecture/presentation of
your paper, listening to avant garde choral works (Ligeti Lux Aeterna)

* * *

Take a look at two books by Brock McElheran:
Conducting Technique (OUP)
and
Music Reading by Intervals (Brichtmark)
(ear-training, error-identification, etc.)

* * *

With a dozen students, it may be difficult to do,
but my undergraduate conducting experience was
great because we had to select our own
repertoire, use the rest of the class to be the
choir, and rehearse it for ten to twelve minutes
as a "first rehearsal" in a typical classroom
setting. With twelve students, the choir may
have difficulties in balance, but the students
will have lots of opportunities to be in front of
their peers, which, if they can put themselves
out there in front of judging classmates, they
can certainly do it in front of younger people
and build confidence in their skills. We also,
as undergraduates, were given the opportunity to
critique one another on any aspect - gesture,
literature selection/interpretation, rehearsal strategies, etc...

I would, however, disagree, that choral and
instrumental conducting are identical in
gesture. Instrumental conductors place beats,
putting one in the middle, 2 and 3 farther to the
left and right, and 4 up above where 1 was. I
learned that every beat in choral conducting is
in the same place with the rebounds going
different ways to indicate which beat. It is a
subtlety, but this change in physical gesture encourages "centered" singing.

* * *

i have always used the 7/8 6/8 passage from the
beginning of britten's rejoice in the lamb
starting at 'let nimrod the mighty hunter'...

* * *

In response to your Choralist question, I think
it might really benefit you to get a hold of the
Jeff Johnson and Rod Eichenberger DVD's
(available at www.sbmp.com except for one other
Eichenberger that you can google). While I agree
that the basics of gesture are the same in both
choral and instrumental, there is so much recent
awareness and discovery concerning gesture and
the voice ... which both Rod and Jeff address.
You might also contact either one of them individually for more info.

In addition, check out Tom Carter's new book. In
Choral CHARISMA: Singing with Expression, which
addresses cutting edge theory and practice
regarding choral conducting and teaching (since
the book is the first and only devoted entirely
to this topic!). www.choralcharisma.com.

* * *

I expect you will get some well-developed syllabi
for this, but here are a few thoughts, which
highlight some things which are essential in my
opinion in choral vs. instrumental conducting.

1. Gesture issues regarding time must be the
same. Singers need to be trained to follow the
same patterns as instrumentalists.

2. Consonants form a part of the time spectrum,
and of the sonority spectrum too. Decisions have
to be made about duration, pitching of voiced
consonants, and the question of how and where to
place consonants. My own preference is to place
initials and medials before the note, taking time
away from the previous note. Finals include
vowel-plus-consonant ON the beat of release, thus
giving more pitch-life to the release. Imprecise
consonant formation and placement can be deadly
to the rhythmic life of choral music.

3. Quality of gesture has a profound effect on
tone quality and freedom of the voice, especially
with amateur singers. "What they see is what you get."

4. Polyphonic line independence plays a
significantly larger role in choral
repertoire. Decisions have to be made regarding
the shape and articulation of individual lines,
moreso that in the largely homophonic orchestral repertoire.

5. These shapes in 4 above are all determined by
text in renaissance music, and often also in later independent polyphony.

* * *

I have had great success with advanced (second semester) choral
conducting students by having them plan, prepare, promote, and perform a
concert.

I spend the majority of the class working with each student (with the
rest of class acting as the choir) on pieces from each of the historical
eras. We discuss/work on performance practice issues and gesture in a
ten minute "rehearsal," and each student must turn in an analysis of the
pieces they conduct in class. Each student is then assigned one piece
from those worked on in class to conduct on the final concert (their
final exam). They each also prepare the publicity, turn in a printed
program for the concert, and write program notes for the piece they are
conducting. Simply put, the students get the experience of taking a
performance from A to Z. They are graded on their preparation for each
class, "rehearsal" planning, all written work, attendance, and the
final.

I have done this twice and the students considered it to be a practical
experience and really enjoyed it.

* * *

Many thanks to all who replied.

Best regards,

Jerome Hoberman
Music Director/Conductor, The Hong Kong Bach Choir & Orchestra
Artistic Director, Metropolitan Youth Orchestras of Hong Kong
Teacher of Conducting, Hong Kong Baptist University