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Conducting: How to conduct a Spiritual

Hello List,

Thanks to everyone who responded to my conducting question. What an amazing
resource this list is! I had a few requests for a compilation of the
responses so have included them here.

Janet Hostetter

Spirituals are different than gospel in that they are considered part of the
Classical Choral repertoire and are actually intended to be performed with
classical technique. So keeping this in mind I think it is important that
you stick to what you've been taught in conducting. I'm assuming the piece
is in 4/4 time - if so, are you conducting in 4 or in 2? If you are not
already conducting in 2 try that for starters.

Most definitely as a conductor I would not sway or step. This is why.
Again it goes back to spirituals being part of the classical repertoire -
basically that means no movement either from you or your choir. (Gospel
music and African music are a whole other ball game, with a different set of

To get the looseness and animation you desire try these 'tricks'

First my mentor taught me conducting based on this premise - 'Sing as I
conduct'. You can conduct a very loose and animated 2 pattern. Practice in
front of the mirror and try singing how you are conducting. Keep
experimenting until you find the pattern that works for you - then take it
to your students.

Second, do you have a room with mirrors in your school that you can take
your students into for a rehearsal, or can you have your students bring hand
mirrors to class for a day or 2? Have the kids sing in front of mirrors
with the goal being to make their faces as animated as possible. Animation
in the face = animation in the sound. Or have the group stand in a circle.
Again the goal is to make their faces as animated as possible, but encourage
them to look around at their class mates, this way they can feed off one
another until they get used to singing with animation.

Third, what about teaching the students how to sing with a more authentic
African-American sound. Did you know that the reason that African-Americans
usually have a distinctively different sound than Caucasians is because
their skulls are thicker than Caucasians and that the thicker skull creates
different resonations thus resulting in a different sound? Keith Hampton
gave a clinic on this a few years back. He said that Caucasians are not
helpless in attempting to achieve the African-American sound. All we need
to do is sing all our vowels more rounded - try to sing from the 'O'
position. In doing so what is really happening is you are covering up the
sound. This new experimentation in singing with a different tone quality
might help get the animation you desire.

Hope this helps some - it might not be exactly what you were looking for,
but the best of luck!!

> Is it appropriate to sway/step side to side as a conductor? Is it
> appropriate to ask the choir to sway/step together?

Absolutely, in my opinion the only way to conduct is to adapt your "style"
to fit the music, do what seems natural and comfortable. Same goes for the
choir, no step-touching during the Hallelujah Chorus, but standing still
during a spiritual seems just as ridiculous.

> How does the conductor communicate the
> spiritual style without traditional gestures getting in the way?

Don't use them. If it doesn't work, loose it. I've found the traditional 4
pattern to work fine with gospel/spiritual pieces, especially if the choir
is already used to it, but I modify it a tad to give more emphasis to beats
1 and 3, usually incorporating a little "pulse" on the "swing 8th" just
before the beat (the last bit more for "gospel" than "spiritual" depending
on how eights are handled). Just remember, you're job is to give the choir
what they need to do an excellent performance without being a distraction to
the audience, no more no less.

Good luck, hope this helps.

I understand that the latest advice on this is exactly what your insticnts
lead you to, i.e., sway, some majoy hand motions, but not the traditional
conducting patterns, etc.


A great piece. I would conduct it in the regular way, insisting on the
animation and energy in the sound.

As Dawson, Johnson, Boatner and the other great arrangers of spirituals made
clear, this is not "entertainment" music. It is serious sacred music.
Joyous and energetic, yes, but not jazzy, swung or pop-style. Not with
swaying or motions. It is not the same as gospel--it is done as it's
written on the page, with great energy and feeling. Good luck.


You may want to emphasize beats 2 & 4 in your conducting pattern. Try having
the choir snap fingers on 2 & 4 to reinforce the driving rhythm (just during
rehearsal, of course). I wouldn't recommend swaying during
spirituals--that's more of a gospel choir practice.


Hi Janet,

I just this past Sunday did Ain't Got Time to Die with my church senior
choir (I have a great tenor soloist).

I agree that a "classic" beat pattern won't yield the right results if
used throughout - although you might need to do that to get your
singers started and to establish tempo.I found the piece worked best
for me in 2, and I'm quite sure I danced all the through the entire
thing just because the music is so infectious. I know my choir was
bopping in the chancel . . . .

I've watched a number of gospel-choir conductors. Most of them use
little in the way of beat patterns - some conduct rhythms where needed
and use a wide variety of gestures that you won't see in university
conducting classes. Most of them move to the music, and the choirs
nearly always move to the music, especially if it's something upbeat
like the Johnson piece.

I think we, as conductors, sometimes get ourselves too wrung out
worrying about "proper technique" and "appropriateness", and in doing
so we kill the music. I'm glad you are asking these questions, because
to me that says you have discovered the existing tension between what
conductors are 'supposed' to do and what actually works with particular
styles of music.

I don't think there is one correct answer to your question - but I do
think you need to listen to what your body tells you about this music
and find some way to convey how it makes you feel to you choir. Maybe
you can do it with traditional gesture and great facial expression - I
just know I'd have to nail my own feet to the floor to be able to
conduct that piece in that way - the rocks would definitely be cryin'
out on my behalf!

Have fun with Ain't Got Time to Die!

I tend to encourage my singers to move when singing spirituals. It depends on
the particular song whether or not it is choreographed or free form. I don't
usually conduct in a pattern unless it is to get them going. I tend to
indicate accents, dynamic changes and releases more than actually conduct. I
have also been told by my students that I tend to "dance" when we sing
Hope that helps,

Hi Janet -


The "beat" is vital in this type of music, whether you are working with a
slow tempo (as In "Rise Up Shepherd and Follow" or an uptempo number like "Go
Tell it in the Morning", and you must provide that "beat" framework from the


Don't think of it as a "classic" beat. Conduct the style of the music. If I
were to equate a "classic" beat to the spiritual style, I would think of
something like "Rejoice" from "Messiah", or "Hallelujah". I don't use a
stolid, pure beat when I work those selections, and I certainly don't when I
conduct a spiritual. I conduct the music the way I feel it and want to
impart it to the singers (or instrumentalists, whatever). But, I NEVER
desert the basic pattern, especially when there are many syncopations and
across the bar rhythms. The musicians MUST know where you are putting those
beats, especially the downbeat. You "hang" everything on the pattern.


Listen, it's appropriate to do anything you can to get the effect you want -
just be sure you know what you want. "Swaying" is the wrong term. I often
"dance" to the spiritual (and to the Baroque guys), keeping myself always
aware of what I look like from the audience, doing just that which I hope
imparts my feelings toward the music to the musicians. Bodily movement is
vital, not just the hands and arms. Facial expression (do you know that
they're not looking directly at your hands, but at your face and eyes?), hip
movement, certain leg and foot movements are necessary to the intrepretation
of the music - and it all depends on the style you are trying to impart.
Know that, and the reactions should come, and they should be appropriate to
your personality and appearance. In other words, get some experience: sing
with good conductors at workshop sessions, watch black choirs and their black
conductors as they sing gospel, assimilate the best of these (through the
development of your own sense of taste and appropriateness) and adapt what
you like to your own style. Takes time!


Seldom do this. Or never! It's overdone, an obvious movement and quickly
bores the audience. On the other hand, in uptempo, with handclaps above the
head or side to side on certain passages, it might work well. Use discretion
and taste, even when you're going for that "groove".

conductor communicate the spiritual style without traditional gestures
getting in the way?>>

Quit thinking "traditional". I've forgotten what that means. Just don't
lose the accent or get away from the beat. That's what everything gets
"hung" on - syncopations, phrasings, accents, the whole groove, depends on
how the group feels the "beat". You are the "bass fiddle" for the group on
this style, and also the drummer, hitting those afterbeats to the bass's
strong basic tempo. Listen to blues, jazz, Motown, SOME types of Rock,
listen to Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and yes, Elvis Presley, the early
rockers - tune in to the great spiritual choirs - listen and attend concerts
and workshops with first rate conductors. Play "Cum Sancto Spiritu" from the
Bach "B minor Mass", especially the Shaw version, if you can find it. I dare
you to conduct to that music and keep your body still! It's in 3 and your
hands and arms should literally flail to that beat - minature, quick
subdivisions, accents, whatever imparts the style to the imaginary musicians
and the audience, all within the so-called "traditional" 3 pattern. Wish I
could work with you in person - these things can't be learned through email
- Conducting is a hoot, and never forget it. Feel the "dance" internally,
and let some of that reflect in your conducting.

Hey, you're absolutely on the right track - now find the beat and dance to
Hi, I am a first year high school choral director and I am black and I find
that movent helpes generate the effect needed to have the desired sound when
doing a spiritual. We are currently doing My God Is An Awesome God and I
make the choir step from side to side and they clap as well on beats 2 and 4.
I dont generally direct to show the beat, they will have that as they sway
from side to side and clap. I just bring them in when needed and basically
show enery so I am more relaxed and if they see me more relaxed and enjoying
the music they will do it as well. So basicllay my advice is relax and
conduct however it takes to get the desired sound from your choir. Have fun
and show off and you will capture the true feeling of a spiritual its not
about the music its about the message it sends to the audience through the
singers. I hope this makes sense lol sorry if I have confused you thanks

I prefer to think that the conductor's job is to do whatever necessary to
bring out the music from the singers. Having been under all kinds of
directors, I eventually decided that when I direct such a piece, I forget
about patterns and beats and do what evokes the music best, (but still
work to keep everyone together!). The best director I was ever under was
VERY animated, yet knew how to be strict and rigid when the music called
for it. Remember, the best conducting teacher you'll ever have is a


Well, first you don't try to do it with Episcopalians!

The thing about GOOD gospel is that it is loose, but it's loose within an
absolutely rock-solid beat, and that beat has to be in your body so
strongly that everyone keys to it. No, traditional beat patterns won't do
it for you. As an experiment, try conducting without using your hands at
all. Express yourself and your rhythm just through your body. If that
actually works, then you can add hand gestures, not to keep the beat, but
to emphasize things that need to be emphasized. And sure, choral movement
might help loosen up your singers. Just make sure that you aren't doing a
parody of a Black gospel chorus, but really feeling it yourselves.

I'm sure it helps to grow up in a Black Methodist Episcopal church where
that's the way God is praised, and you might get some good advice if there
are any such churches in your area.

I was playing in the Roanoke Symphony when they did a piece that Quincy
Jones had written for Ray Charles, with choruses from several Roanoke area
Black gospel (and white too) churches. They were sounding OK, but not
really rocking, and Ray stopped the rehearsal and just spoke quietly to
them. I can't remember what he said, more's the pity, but it was exactly
what they needed, and from that time forward they really got it on, and it
was a really exciting experience.

Best of luck.
Janet, conducting should be judged only by the result it produces. There's no
other standard. Anything you can think of that works musically and that lifts
everyone's spirits is perfect. Rule nothing out.

Conventional gestures are most appropriate for spirituals. If you are not
getting the desired effect with your gesture, check your gesture by mirror,
videotaping, or a trusted colleague. Remember that the singing will reflect
the gesture. The stepping side to side is up to you. There are really no
mandates, but I wouldn't sway. It's your choir and your concert.



Great question regarding spirituals. I think you ought to consider
choral performances of spirituals the same way you would any other piece
of music. In other words, you need to think carefully about the sort of
choir you are working with, what size the group is, whether your standing
in front of them is ultimately a help or a hindrance, etc. and make your
decisions based on that assessment. It's the same sort of decision you
would need to make when performing a Renaissance motet or madrigal as
well. If you have a rather large group in which individual singers tend
to accept less responsibility for all things musical--not the least of
which is the steady pulse--you may need to stand in front of the group.
If you prepare the choir well, you can stand in front of them and offer
minimal gesture just to keep things together, adding an occasional
dynamic reminder, etc. without necessarily communicating stiffness, lack
of animation, etc. In the specific case of "Ain't Got Time to Die", you
have the added issue of coordinating the choir with a soloist, which
becomes particularly problematic at the ending.

If you decide to stand in front of the group, I don't think it would be
inappropriate to sway a bit. Whatever you do or don't do gesturally,
your FACE will say so much to the choir. Also you might feel less stiff
conducting mostly in two rather than four (though the "Ain't Got Time to
Die" responses from the choir will want to speed up!). One other quick
caveat, in your desire to present this piece energetically, be careful
not to let it run away. In general, spirituals are sung too fast by most
choirs. Sing straight eighths (don't swing) and remember that at the
heart of all the excitement the piece communicates is a rock solid belief
in what is being sung. If it is sung too fast, it can come off flippant
and "pop" like, when--as the name suggests--it ought to be more

Hope this is helpful. What a great piece, though!

I think it is not appropriate no sway and such when conducting sprirituals.
You are thinking of Gospel Music which is a completely different genre then
the spiritual. I suggest you look for a word or words in the text and find a
gesture in your conducting that allows the choir to "express " that word.
Also ask you singers to be really involved in the music, let their facial
expressions be part of the performance.


Hi Janet:

No doubt you'll get dozens of's 2 more cents.

If you have any jazz choir experience or have seen a jazz choir perform, you
probably saw the director give very minimal beat patterns (in fact, many jazz
directors step aside during a straight ahead swing tune.) Rather, keeping a
small pulse with the right hand and giving important cues seem to be all that
is needed. "Ain't Got Time" is a jazz-type tune at its core, so I think that
to conduct a 4 pattern the entire time would indeed be overkill.

As for the dancing--as long as it's not distracting to performers or
audience, I say go for it.

Good luck--


Once people know the piece, you don't have to do much at all. I conduct it
with very minimal movement myself, and it rocks. If they can SAY the words in
rhythm with energy and excitement, using all the dynamics given, they'll be
able to sing it great. I always conduct the cutoff's on the word "die" when
the soloist comes in again.

Just get soulful and convey the excitement youself. They'll catch your
Movement will be spontaneous and natural, too.

The conductor's job is to get out of the way of it all once the music is
learned solidly, in my opinion. I "take over" more at the end of the piece,
with grander gestures, but the classical beat patterns are not necessary.

My $.02!


I'm working on that piece, too. I am really only conducting the accents--when
they need it. The soloist really leads that piece, and I don't think the
conductor should get in the way until the refrain.
Good luck--it's one of my favorite pieces1



I'm by no means an experienced choral conductor, but I
do tend to be opinionated sometimes, so I thought I'd
share :)

(I am also an elementary music teacher trying my hand
at a 5th and 6th grade chorus for the first time this
year, and I've been singing in choruses for about 22
years now, ever since 3-year-old choir at church. I
thought I wanted to teach high school chorus until
student teaching cured me of that, but when I
eventually go back to school I still may get my
master's in choral conducting, who knows?)

To me, the point of conducting is not to stand up
there waving your arms around in those set conducting
patterns we all learned in conducting class. THe point
is to communicate with your choir in such a way as to
help them effectively communicate the music to the
audience. I say, do whatever works! If a beat pattern
doesn't work, try something else and when you hit on
something that works, stay with it. Especially for
something like a spiritual, I think it would be
perfectly acceptable to do something different. The
choir is going to respond to what they see, and if the
way they respond is not the result you want, do
something different. Something like conducting I don't
think should ever be set in stone like that, to say
that you must always do a standard beat pattern no
matter what.

Like I said, I'm no expert -- I'm just an elementary
music teacher with only 2 1/2 years experience, but
that's my opinion on the matter, and I'm always glad
to share my opinions on things!! I suspect, though,
that even the experienced conductors will tell you
something similar, and if they don't, you can email me
back with their comments and set me straight on the

Best of luck,

When we do AINT GOT TIME, we clap, sway, move and get very loose. (We are a
multi-race master chorale who happens to specialize in spirituals.) However,
we have worked with the late Moses Hogan, whose style both for himself and
for his chorus was very spare of motion and of movement (he distinguished
between gospel and spiritual) and yet produced enormous variation in emotion.
We found that this also worked magnificently. I think it really depends
upon your singers and the particular piece.
Let 'em move and really work with them on internalizing the beat and the
subdivisions TOO! They absolutely MUST "feel" this music and sing it that
way. It's really more of a "let's get together and sing" type of work than
a "performance" piece, if you get my drift. That's what they have to
understand and what you work to help them understand.

That's just a bit. We just had an African-American choral festival here in
town with Paul Smith from Cal State Northridge, who is wonderful. As for
conducting, don't really beat a pattern per se--let the music dictate what
you do. It's really much more up to the choir to stay together on these
pieces than it is for the conductor to "keep" them together. Think of jazz
(and this is straight from Dr. Smith). By the way, gospel music isn't
"conducted" at all--it's entirely normal to simply conduct the words, not
the beats.

Hope it helps!

You're positively correct in what you want....You also know that your soloist
is going to have to set the mood....A spiritual is such an emotional piece
and so full of dynamic changes....If you fell comfortable swaying, go for it,
but I'd wait until they know the piece very well....I would teach it like any
piece, in sections....I'd really punch out the "glory and hon-NUH, glory and
hon-NUH" parts.....It brings out the soprano-tenor dissonance.....really lean
into the accent marks.....When they have it down pat and know what to do, you
can keep a straight directing pattern and still show the ebb and flow of
dynamic changes.....this is such a great piece, have lots of fun!!

I was once in a workshop with William Dawson (a
reasonably reliable source on spirituals) and he used
a traditional conducting pattern. But, he was very
specific as to what he wanted from us.


Hi, Janet,
Do you want to be the show, or do you want the music to do it? If you
want to be the show, by all means sidestep and flail around. If you think the
music stands on its own, prepare it with meticulous attention to the detail
it deserves, and make your gestures strong and meaningful without drawing
attention to yourself.



I think you've hit on something really important - in the syncopated style
of the spiritual, traditional conducting is counter to the truth of the
music. So teach and build in the music with the singers internalizing the
pulse - not so hard on such rhythmic music - and then when the notes /
rhythms are learned, conduct the musical gesture, not the meter, which is
really self-evident in such music. In this style, children and adults
don't need a conductor to define the pulse, but rather the phrasing and
other non-pulse aspects. Re moving, be very careful and aware of the
effect on both your singers and on the audience. Ask a singer or conductor
from an African - American tradition to give suggestions on how to move in
a way that adds something, and doesn't end up looking cheesy.

Good Luck!


on June 4, 2006 10:00pm
One of the main mistakes that conductors and singers make with spirituals is that they don't consider them serious choral literature. Although spirituals have repetitive rhythmic patterns, that is no reason to treat them like showtunes(like many conductors do!). One of the main things to remember is that spirituals are extremely expressive pieces, and should be treated thusly. Expression and rhythm shpuld be of utmost importance. When it comes to Conducting, basic beat patterns do work well. However, in some spirituals, this is inadequate. Experiment with different conducting techniques. Let the music decide what movements you make. Choirs respond to what they see, so sometimes, you might need to exaggerate your movements. You should try to refrain from clapping or snapping fingers like some conductors and singers do. This only undermines the main feature of sprirituals--THE MESSAGE! An understanding of the meaning and history of a spiritual(s) is a plus. This will only make for a better performance.
on January 23, 2007 10:00pm
Having worked with Moses Hogan back in 2002.. a short time before his death.. I learned a lot of what he thought about spirituals and some performance practices I had observed him using. Moses used both methods.. there were some of his pieces in where I saw him use the pattern in modification( like his abide with me) and also where he started the group in a pattern and then went to conducting accents and other different things going on... as in his My Soul's Been Anchored.I think that a lot of the responses have been wonderful.. Moses always made sure that we felt the internal pulse of the music.. and when he'd conduct it.. he would use hand and facial gestures to remind the group ever so slightly.To be honest Moses didn't have us to move at all, but he didn't limit that if some folks felt so moved to do use slight gestures for internalizing the pulse.Also in general Moses said this to me and I thought it was the most profound thing. Why is it that we just aquaint the spiritual with only the African-American experience? We all can attest of struggles and conflicts in our lives right? Yes this is a music that we as African-Americans have roots in.. but it is also a music capable of transcending racial bounds, delivering a broken people, and building faith to name a few. I encourage you and your choirs to not only perform this music.. but pay close attention to the message in this music. This is a music for all people!
on May 14, 2007 10:00pm
The first thing I tell all of my choirs is that the beat continues, regardless of whether or not I am conducting it. If they can't keep tempo constant without your help, they're not working hard enough in rehearsal (and there are exercises you can do to correct this).

Of course, there are times when you want tempo variation (ie rubato etc). You should beat time here, but when the tempo is constant, why waste your energy?

With spirituals, I would instead spend more time giving entries, cutoffs, and indicating dynamic and textural changes than beating tempo - that's what your accompanist is for.

If all else fails, get a drummer. On second thoughts, go for a percussionist. :P