ChorTeach is ACDA’s quarterly publication for choral conductors and teachers at all levels. It is published online, and each issue contains four practical articles. If you are not already a member of ACDA, you can join and receive access to ChorTeach online. Below is an excerpt from an article written by William Hienz an appearing in the Winter 2019 issue, available here.
It was not too long ago that the “big day” in a conducting class was watching the film of Toscanini conduct his NBC Orchestra. The instructor pointed out how the conductor’s every gesture held meaning, his clear point-to-point beat, the great eye contact, and the fact that he conducted from memory. Videos like this were few, and in the days before digital media, professionals and students alike had little opportunity to observe a great conductor at work. Most often, one had to be seated in the audience.
Today all that has changed. We have an enormous wealth of online videos capturing fantastic (and instructive) performances. We can view a choral conductor from two months ago or an orchestra conductor from forty years ago. We can observe conductors from many nations, places to which we may never travel. Why is watching other conductors important? That is how we learn, and conducting is nothing if not a perpetual state of learning and striving for a perfect performance. Indeed, it is said that we become a composite of all the conductors with whom we have ever studied and performed. That statement is largely true, for better or sometimes worse. After all, not all of our observational experiences were voluntary, and perhaps we saw some things better left unseen, such as the “straight-jacket” (arms crossing while cueing), the “Batman” (head in the score with both elbows above the ears), or the “windmill” (both arms moving fast in circles).
While many practitioners have not had the opportunity to study with virtuoso conductors or even excellent teachers, we can now study the traits and styles of conductors of our choosing. We can be inspired by observing the best of the best. Whether we are beginners or professionals, conducting large or small ensembles, choral or instrumental focus, young singers or a town and gown community chorus performing major oratorios, we can learn by watching both the good and the bad.
With that in mind, consider three overarching areas where the plethora of videos available provide valuable instruction: knowledge of the score, baton technique, and stage deportment. Let’s explore each in turn and then consider several performances available on video and the lessons therein.
Knowledge of the Score
Knowing the score is primary in everything we do as conductors. It is not hard to see whether a conductor knows the score. (Most often, we observers can hear it too.) Compare, for instance, a consummate professional to an apprentice. While the novice might have his head in the score with little eye contact, the professional may not even be using music. She may be conducting from memory, which means her eyes are on the choir.
We can see immediately that the score is engraved in the conductor’s mind; the sound is in her ear. Also, because our professional has memorized or has a deep knowledge of the score, cues for entrances, dynamics, transitions, and myriad other items are secure. This builds confi dence and allows for cueing with the eyes or a nod of the head. She and the ensemble are working as one, and the video shows it.
Read more in the Winter 2019 issue at acda.org/chorteach.