I was reminded over the weekend of one of the most powerful ways you can improve your conducting – watch other conductors.
I was lucky enough to attend an all-day masterclass event run by the Assocation of British Choral Directors and led by tutors Neil Ferris and Jo Tomlinson. About a dozen conductors participated and about another dozen, myself included, observed. We were joined in the afternoon by two local choirs for performance practice. The icing on the cake for me was that it was also an opportunity to sing Brahms’ German Requiem, one of my favourite pieces of choral music.
I was, of course, expecting to get some pointers during the day to improve my own conducting, but I confess I’d forgotten just how much tuition you get from watching others get tutored. There were so many different styles among the participants, all of whom were excellent in their own way. The tutors’ advice and help was always tailored to the particular conductor, but it was notable that the same issues arose over and over again. We are all individual musicians with different backgrounds and perspectives, but it seems that we all fall into the same traps. Here are some of the major issues that arose frequently:-
Moving too much
There’s no need to stand on the podium like a robot, and you may be a choir leader who likes to dance around a bit (especially if you’re doing rock and pop or barbershop), but keep an eye on unnecessary movement. If you’re bringing in a particular section, you don’t need to walk towards them, just turn to them. In a single song, it won’t make a lot of difference, but in a big choral work like the Brahms, or over the course of an entire concert, you’ll need to conserve your energy.
Mouthing the words
This is something that comes up again and again, and it’s something I counsel against in our Basic Conducting Technique course. I was astonished at how many of the participants sang or mimed the words all the time. Neil Ferris, rightly I think, suggested that this is a symptom of wanting to do too much for the singers. You cannot do everything for the choir – you have to trust them. There are also practical considerations. If you mouth the words all the time, your singers become too reliant on it. When sections are singing different words at different times, whose words do you sing?
Losing your strength
The tutors at this event focused a lot on core strength, reminding all the conductors that their gestures must come from their core to get the desired effect from the choir. This can seem counter-intuitive; why does it matter what our bodies are doing as long as our gestures are clear?
The central point is, I think, that human beings communicate largely unconsciously. Our body language is as important as our gestures and instructions. If we stand before our choirs with good, strong posture, using our support muscles and breathing when the choir needs to breathe, the choir will mirror those attributes back at us.
I can thoroughly recommend attending an event like this as a way of brushing up your conducting skills, even if you don’t participate yourself. I came away feeling inspired to improve my own skills and to apply the tutors’ excellent advice to my next rehearsal.