Choral conducting – being expressive versus being clear

I’ll never forget the conducting advice I received from a friend when I was starting my choir. She simply and rather mysteriously said ‘you will find your way’. I don’t have a ‘way’, I thought, but sure enough before long I was waving my arms around with the best of them finding ways to communicate what I wanted musically. A few years down the line and with some formal conducting traning behind me, I am confident that I am now a much better conductor with clearer signals. However, many of the fundamental things from my initial style still remain.

How expressive should we be?

Every conductor is different but success seems to be about finding a style that is appropriate to your choir and your repertoire. If you are leading a chamber choir in a performance of 19th century romantic music, it would hardly seem appropriate to be bopping from side to side. On the other hand, if you are attemping a rock classic with a contemporary choir, standing rigidly still might ruin the mood somewhat! If the thought of those scenarios made you chuckle then it’s probably because as conductors we all have a fundamental understanding of musical meaning and immediately see that neither would be appropriate.

As a conductor you are there to hold everyone together, not to be centre stage. If you lead a choir singing upbeat music with lots of rhythm, some movement on your part will be instinctive, but too much will take the audience’s attention.  I lead a contemporary choir and I always get involved in my music naturally, using movement to convey the feeling I want to create in our performance to my choir. I find that the choir often reflects this back, which is great because I don’t want them to remain completely still, I want them to get in the groove (unless we are doing a slow ballad type of song)! During my conducting training, I was advised against this, but that training was focused more specifically on traditional choral settings where flamboyant movement might detract from the clarity of the conductor’s direction.

How clear should we be?

If you’re starting out as a conductor or if you already have experience, take time to think about your repertoire, practise conducting one of your pieces in front of a mirror and observe your movement – is it appropriate to the piece and does it convey the right signals to your choir? Now try beating a basic four beat pattern putting no expression into it at all. How does that feel? It probably looks very clear but does it give any indication of musical expression and feeling.

The most important signal which you give to your choir as conductor is the beat pattern. There are many ways in which that can be communicated to your choir, but we have to strike a blance between expression and clarity.  Ideally, we want to avoid over-directing; if we’re conducting to the extremity of our arms’ reach during a soft and lilting passage, where will be go when we want to indicate a crescendo?

Additional tips

Remember that many of your conducting techniques will be mirrored back to you by the choir. If you are tense you may raise your shoulders. If your choir echoes that tension, the sound may be affected. Try to stay relaxed and keep everything flowing.

Breathe – it sounds obvious but giving your choir cues for breathing will really help them.

Try not to sing along with the choir. If your choir sings from memory, they may start to rely on you and focus completely on you rather than the audience.

Relax and smile – don’t show the choir any nerves or tension you feel. Maintaining a bright expression will encourage them to do the same and help to create a better pitch and tone.

We’d love to hear some of your top conducting tips and how you strike a balance between clarity and expression.

Comments on Choral conducting – being expressive versus being clear

  1. Avatar Stephen says:

    Amazing thoughts right there Christine! I just came across this site in search of tips for a musical workshop but mow I’m on a tour around here. Haha! I’m amazingly blessed by this. I’m a university student as the musical director of my church choir and I’ll be handling having a workshop very soon. I hope to feature a whole lot of your thoughts on it. Thanks again!

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Stephen, thanks for your lovely message, I’m pleased the article was helpful to you. Welcome to Total Choir Resources and good luck with your upcoming workshop.

  2. Avatar Lesley says:

    I just love all your advice and tips! I am a “somewhat” new choral director (mostly instrumental). I direct a “shanty” choir in Holland (I am from Canada). Sometimes the language can be a problem but, 85% of their pieces are in English so I have the advantage on that and I made a “deal” with the choir…they work with the English and I work with the “taal”. With directing…it becomes so obvious to me how important my gestures and facial expressions…pertaining to the tempo of the music, bring out the choir’s best performance.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Lesley, lovely to hear from you and I’m delighted you enjoy the site. Really interesting to hear from you about working with two languages and how this affects gesture and facial expressions. Whenever I have visited Holland I’ve always been in awe at how well everyone speaks English – even when I’ve tried to use some Dutch!

  3. Avatar Linda J Crawford says:

    Greetings from Canada! Thank you for today’s post! I find that my conducting is usually of a process of conducting less, as we progress through the time of preparing a concert. The closer the concert, the more minimalist I try to get with my gestique! I guess it’s a process of having the music take place of importance, rather than me! The older I get, the more I realize that “over-conducting” is ultimately less successful!

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      That’s a great perspective Linda.

  4. Avatar Sara says:

    Wow…this article has come at just the right time for me. I am launching my new community choir in a few days time, and life circumstance have meant that I have not yet managed to attend any formal training. However, I do feel music in my body when I sing. Your words have given me a lot of encouragement and confidence that I will just find my own way…which is better than trying to copy someone else’s style.

    So, I’m just going to feel the music, smile, breath, and maybe wave my arms about occasionally :)

    Thank you for all your advice…I have felt really supported by your website articles, podcasts and the Choir Starter Kit has been invaluable. I hope you appreciate how much you have helped me. Next time you are in London, pop along on a Tuesday night and say hi!!

    Sara x

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks Sara,

      We’re so pleased the site has been so helpful for you. We wish you every success with your new choir, do keep in touch and let us know how it all goes.

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