The no. 1 mistake most choir leaders make

What's the no. 1, physically and mentally exhausting mistake that choir leaders make? And how can we avoid it? Give me a few minutes of your time, and I'll share the problem, and a solution.

It takes guts to stand up in front of a group of singers and ask them to take direction from you. As choir leaders, we feel acutely the responsibility of producing a fine performance. Also, let's face it, there's sometimes a little bit of egotism in there too. If we're conducting a performance, rather than preparing a choir for another conductor, it's our interpretation of the music that the audience is going to hear, so the buck stops with us.

This sense of responsibility and of being at the helm can lead us into making what is, in my book, the no. 1 conducting error. We do too much. Some of us do WAY too much. I saw a conductor at work recently. Despite that fact that he was conducting a gentle, lyrical song, his gestures looked like someone frantically pumping water out of a sinking boat! Every beat was harsh and jerky. The result was a choir that looked, frankly, terrified, and whose performance was, you've guessed it, harsh and jerky.

So why was this conductor flailing his arms around? Why wasn't he demonstrating the gentle, lyrical nature of the song with his gestures? Why, crucially, wasn't he enjoying himself? The answer, I think, is that he was terrified too. He felt that he had to pull his choir along, and drag every note out of them. I think we can probably all sympathise with that. It's the fear that if we don't do those things, the music won't happen at all.

Taking that approach is a vicious circle and it's exhausting (although I suppose if you're after a great workout while you conduct, it has merit). Once a choir gets used to a conductor who gesticulates everything, they don't notice subtler, gentler cues.  

The answer, I believe, is that we have to have the courage to ask our choirs to come to us, rather than trying to reach out and pull the music out of them. Our job is to interpret the music; our choir's job is to sing the right notes and words, and follow our interpretation.

If you have fallen into a pattern of doing too much, it can be really difficult to take a step back, calm down, and let go of the fear that the music won't happen. It could also freak your choir out if you suddenly overhaul your conducting style. I suggest a gradual change of direction, firstly during warm-ups and later moving on to repertoire. You could start with a simple song or round and experiment with using only your beating arm. Try moving from piano to forte with only a small increase in the size of the gesture. What happens? Is it different if you change your facial expression as well? Give yourself permission to be curious and try something new.

If you can scale back so that you're not giving everything on every beat of every bar, you may find that you open up a whole new emotional breadth to your conducting, so that when you're dealing with something truly climactic (Beethoven 9? Les Mis?) you'll have something more to give.

What do you think? Is this, or has this been, a challenge for you? Have you tried any particular techniques to resolve it?
3 quick tips for better choir discipline

3 comments

Victoria Hopkins Staff

Thanks for your insight, Megan. It sounds like your choir is challenging but, I imagine, incredibly rewarding and worthwhile. I'm sure your singers get tremendous joy from it. I actually think that what you describe doesn't conflict at all with the points I made in my original post. What I was suggesting was that a lot of us do more than we need. In your case, it sounds like your doing exactly what is needed for your singers. You can use big gestures in a calm way, and it sounds like that's exactly what you're experimenting with.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

"We wondered if he was going to grab our bells and ring them for us". Love that line, Mary. Thank you for your insights and kind comments. Much appreciated.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

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