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The Young Conductor II - what does a conductor need to know?

When I taught beginning conducting (which I did for 18 years at Pacific Lutheran University), I'd begin by asking the class to tell me what the conductor did. What did she need to know? What skills are necessary? What roles does the conductor play? What's important to become a very good conductor? This would always take coaxing and hints, because it was rare that the students had thought very much about that. They'd been in choirs, perhaps for many years, but looked at it from the other side. Now that they were taking this class (some because it was a requirement, some because they wanted to be music educators, perhaps even some because they wanted to do what I was doing!), they needed to start to see conducting from another angle.
 
I'd write the things they said on the white board and gradually they'd be grouped in different ways (they didn't come in this order, of course):
 
communication (can be gesture or verbal . . . or other non-verbal)
conducts (gesturally)
leads rehearsals
teacher
 
hears and corrects mistakes
theory
music history
ear training
 
knows the voice
understands instruments
 
can create a good choral sound
 
knows style
performance practice (OK, my undergrads didn't usually think of this)
 
knows choral repertoire
 
is a leader
 
how to choose singers in an audition
 
keyboard skills
 
interpreter (knows how the music goes)
 
inspires
 
administrator (they rarely thought of this one either)
organizer
 
There would be variations on all these, but it always took coaxing and hints to get them to realize, for example, that a large part of the conductor's time is spent on organizing and administering many things connected with having a choir. Some, who may have been assistants or member of a choir council, might have thought of this, but even those students rarely thought about it--it just happened, didn't it?
 
As the list got more or less complete, then I'd start erasing things from the board: "It's incredibly important for you to be able to learn a score, to hear mistakes, and that's why you take theory, ear training, and piano, but we don't teach those things in this class." (I'd deal with them in later conducting classes, but not here)
 
"You'll learn certain things about music in music history. You'll also pick up ideas in your private lessons and in singing in your choir."
 
"You take voice not only to sing better, but to understand the voice and how it works, and how to teach your singers. You'll also learn about aspects of this in your choral methods class."
 
"You'll spend an amazing time organizing and administering your choir(s). Some of that you'll learn in your methods classes. . . but not all!"
 
"When you rehearse you use gesture, but also communicate verbally."
 
"Being a leader, being inspiring is incredibly important, but we don't have a class for that."
 
And gradually, everything was erased from the board except for gestural/manual conducting: "All these things are important for you as a conductor. Some you'll learn in the various parts of the curriculum (and now you know why you want to master those things!) and some you'll pick up along the way. Some are knowledge and some are skills. But in this class, we're really only concerned with learning the craft of gesture--how can you communicate with your ensemble what you want to happen in the music? What you'll learn here isn't nearly as hard as learning to play an instrument, for example. But it'll make your job as a conductor much easier if you can communicate gesturally to any ensemble--instrumental or vocal--with your gesture so your singers and players know what you want."
 
At this point I went over the syllabus (which I'll share part of below). But it's critical for the beginning conductor--and many who are already teaching or leading a church choir--to remember that the conductor has an amazing range of skills and knowledge to master. That's the point of today's post for the blog. And much of this takes years to master--there's no end point, which is one of the reasons I love this art. No matter how much I've done, there's still more to learn, there's great repertoire I don't know or haven't yet been able to conduct. For me, that's the reason it's continually fascinating. So, for the young conductor (literally beginning or beginning to establish your career), be aware of what you don't yet know, don't be overwhelmed by it, but enjoy the endless journey towards becoming a better and better conductor. You will never "arrive."
 
The basic conducting class was oriented only towards gesture. However, I always did an error detection exercise early on: they were given a simple chorale to learn for the next class--I then played it in three different versions (each played twice), and each with a more-difficult-to-hear mistake--best was if they identified the part which was wrong and the specifics--"you played C# instead of C-natural" after circling the alto note on one bar; next was to know what note was wrong, but not being able to identify the specific mistake; next to know something was wrong "around here."). This wasn't graded, but if they had real difficulty doing this (especially if they were planning a career in music education!), I took them aside and told them that they needed to work incredibly hard on ear training if they were to succeed--they would have a very difficult time as a conductor if they can't identify and correct mistakes.
 
Basic Conducting Syllabus:
This is the syllabus for basic conducting—not a syllabus tied to specific days, papers or exams—but  a list of the skills that we'll attempt to master.  They're given in the general order in which we'll approach them.  As you all now realize, there is much more to conducting than gestural conducting technique, but that is the focus of this beginning class.
 
The development of a sound conducting technique means mastering skills—and as with any skill, this means practice.  Just as you can't go into your vocal or instrumental lesson having practiced only a few minutes before (you can do that, of course, you just won't accomplish very much!), you must practice regularly if you expect to improve your conducting skills.  Basic conducting skills are not too difficult, but you’ll find that you make the fastest progress with short, focused, and frequent practice sessions.
 
Each of the individual skills inter-relates with the others, so don't feel that you can stop practicing previous techniques as you add new ones.  As you add, for example, left hand cues, accents or new patterns, you must make sure that the foundations of posture, relaxation, and clarity are still secure.  Further, each skill needs to be practiced to the point of being automatic. It does you no good to be able to conduct a beat pattern if you have to muster all of your concentration just to keep your hand moving in the right direction!  Ultimately, technique must be automatic so that your conscious mind can concentrate on the music and the ensemble.
 
Taken as a whole, conducting is a complicated mix of many different elements and, whether or not you plan a career in conducting, can be a wonderful way to integrate different aspects of musicianship.
  • Good conducting posture
  • Learning to work with the non-linear nature of the body
  • Relaxed bounce—a stable bounce point, the bounce centered in the hand, finding a relaxed hand position
  • Introduction to conducting patterns—how and why patterns work
  • The 3 and 4 pattern—conducting with a "balanced" pattern—working to groove the beat so that you can concentrate on other things while maintaining the beat
  • Changing the size and speed of patterns, conducting crescendos and diminuendos
  • Work on left hand independence
  • The 2 pattern
  • Showing accents or subito fortes within the beat
  • Giving accents or cues with the left hand
  • Irregular patterns:  7/8, 5/8 etc.
  • Subdivided patterns:  "in 6," "in 8," etc.
  • Making ritards and accelerandos
  • Preparatory beats:  pieces starting on the beat
  • Preparatory beats:  pieces starting off the beat
  • Cut-offs
  • Fermatas
  • Putting it all together—learning to show what you want with your conducting technique
 
Remember, technique is just the means to a goal—that of making music.
 
on January 27, 2014 10:07pm
Your statment above, "Being a leader, being inspiring is incredibly important, but we don't have a class for that." has been something that I've been thinking about for a while, and is what I've been bloging about.  My last blog post was some thoughts about our need to teach leadership, but it is too long to comment here.  Forgive the link, but should you be interested in my response, my blog address is http://www.choralconductor.org/
 
on January 28, 2014 5:15pm
Kenneth,
 
Thanks for the link! You have excellent things to add. I always have loved Brock McElheran's statement in his book about conducting (I'm paraphrasing here, don't have the book in front of me): "It does no good to memorize long lists of baroque ornaments if no one wants to play or sing them for you."
 
Yes, it's one of the things that there is no class for in any music ed sequence I've seen! Or at the graduate level. I (at least) hope to address that with other conductors through a couple ways: first is to model it. We all learn from our models, sometimes negatively ("I'll never do that!"), but most of the time (I hope!) positively. We as teachers have to model what it is to be a leader: what does one do? how do you behave? how do you inspire? or just, what does it mean to be a leader?
 
Second, I think with students you can talk informally about the qualities of leadership. I believe that much of what happens at the graduate level happens outside of class. It's in the informal discussions, sometimes involving the teacher, oftimes between a group of grad students in a program without the professors there! As I mentioned in the first post, I love "shop talk" and it's in those times (lunch, dinner, after a rehearsal, etc.) that many of these topics that don't have a "home" in choral curriculums can be addressed.
 
One of my later blog posts in the series will deal with this, since it isn't in the curriculum. I've long been a collector of books about leadership and, as you saw if you read my last blog series on "What we can learn from John Wooden," I've long been interested in the topic and happy to learn from business leaders, coaches, or anyone else with something to say. I've always loved reading biographies of conductors and this, too, is another place to learn about what leadership means and is.
 
Thanks for raising this important question!