The job of a choral music educator, while rewarding, is a complex one. Sometimes it seems that managing the choral music program has very little to do with music making and more to do with paperwork, parents, and politics. For many, time actually spent practicing the artistry of conducting represents a small percentage comparatively to other issues and deadlines perceived as more pressing.
Conducting with intent, with the goal to look like the music, can be an act of inspiration for your singers. As you renew your commitment to go beyond basic patterns to conducting artistry, note these six issues that get in the way of beautiful conducting and beautiful performances:
- High conducting. High conducting encourages high, shallow breathing, and tension at the top of the vocal tract. Lower your arms so that your conducting and your preparation gesture/breath occur in front of the lower abdomen. A lowered gesture reinforces the idea of a supported tone that is connected to the breath.
- Beginning a musical selection with more than one beat of preparation. This is what I call “getting ready to get ready”. Train yourself to provide all the necessary information with a single preparation beat. The preparatory beat should show quality of breath and character of the music (tempo, dynamics, articulation, energy, etc.).
- Constantly conducting large. Remember, the smallest gesture that is clear and musical is the best gesture. Choirs become accustomed to large conducting and are desensitized to any meaning that it holds. An effective conductor has variety of large and small gestures at their disposal.
- Unnecessary, unconscious, and constant subdivision. One of the most important jobs of a choral conductor is to teach and advocate for legato singing. To promote legato singing the gesture should display no “stops” or “bumps”. The legato gesture can be described and practiced with “rounded” beat patterns. Imagery such as pretending your hand as a paintbrush, painting even brush strokes on the wall or imagining that you are conducting underwater helps promote sustain in the legato gesture.
- Constantly mouthing the words. Mouthing the words occasionally to remind developmental choirs the shape of vowels can be advantageous. However, constantly mouthing the words hinders the ability of a conductor to evaluate the rehearsal or performance. Mouthing the words can also be confusing to parts of the chorus that the conductor is not mouthing with. Furthermore, when mouthing the words the conductor is asking the singer to focus more on the mouth than the conductor’s hands.
- The belief the choir needs you to show them everything. Remember, conducting in performances should remind your singers of musicality already ingrained. The belief that we have to show every cue, cut-off, consonant, vowel shape will make us, the conductor, look the opposite of the music; like a crazy, undisciplined lunatic on the podium. Just as a singer must conceal great skill with great artistry, the conductor should conceal great teaching skills with conducting artistry.
Michael Murphy is director of choral activities and associate professor of music at Stephen F. Austin State University where he conducts choral ensembles, teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in conducting, choral literature, and choral techniques, and administers the masters in choral conducting program.