It’s probably fair to say that many of us have arrive at our choir rehearsals without so much as having lifted that conducting arm since the previous week. Life is busy, things get in the way and often conducting technique can come way down the list of things to squeeze in.
Developing your skills as a conductor should not be an afterthought. As a choir leader, your job is to bring your singers together and direct them in a clear, concise way so that they understand the music and know what you require from them. This, as we know, takes confidence and there’s nothing like practice to boost your confidence. If you turn up at rehearsal with a new piece, you have probably taken time to learn it, to understand the music and the parts. You have probably planned how you will teach it but have you thought about and practised how you will conduct it? If the answer’s no, it’s probably time to fit some conducting practice into your weekly routine. In this article I offer some simple tried and tested tips that will really benefit and help develop you as a choir leader.
Be realistic about time
It’s true that you get out of something what you put into it. The more time you spend practising your skills as a choir leader and conductor, the better you will get at it. However, for most of us there are other factors affecting our time such as jobs, families and a variety of commitments. As much as we have good intentions, we are not realistically going to be able to spend hours a day working on conducting technique. If we tell oursleves we will, it’s likely that after a couple of sessions, when we find that we can’t keep up with our unrealistic expectations, we’ll feel stressed and defeated and we’ll give up altogether. Instead, look at your weekly schedule and be realistic. How much time can you put aside to practise conducting? If you are used to a weekly session of score preparation and rehearsal planning, perhaps adding even ten minutes extra for conducting practice is a good place to start. Or perhaps you could do one session after a rehearsal (when the areas that need work are fresh in your mind), followed by another closer to your next rehearsal day.
Just as with singing, before you start to practice conducting, take a couple of minutes to warm up. This helps you to focus on the task and also relax and eliviate any tension which could get in the way of a good practice session. Gently roll the shoulders, turn the head and do some stretches. Also take some deep breaths so that you feel calm and focused. Remember to work within your own capabilities, just as you would advise your singers to do. If you launch straight into conducting, your arms can quickly get tired. Try gently circling the arms in turn and together as part of your warm-up, and do some slow beat patterns with both arms to get your body moving.
Take a look in the mirror
There’s nothing like a mirror or, if you’re feeling brave, a video to show you where you need to improve. This gives you an instant view of how you look to your singers when conducting. It will help you to diminish and eliminate problem areas. You may, for example, be giving gestures that you weren’t even aware of. You can also see your facial expressions, which may reveal that you are glowering at your choir when you don’t mean to. When we conduct, we want to breathe with the choir, so making sure we are doing this correctly is important as well as maintaining good posture. Remember, your singers will often mirror your stance and expression, so make sure it’s what you want to see.
Practising your conducting can give you much more confidence in your rehearsals. We often come across pieces with tricky entries where we need all our skill and concentration. Take your current pieces and re-examine them with your choir’s experience in mind. Are there any changes in tempo, pauses or tricky entries? By practising these beforehand, you will build up smooth movements which work for you and make you feel confident. You will appear much more professional and authoritative at your rehearsals and will boost your singers’ confidence in you.