What makes a great choir leader? – with Tom Newall: Part 1

We’re delighted to introduce Tom Newall to you. As someone who trains choral conductors, he has a lot of great advice to offer us. In a two-part article, he tells us about his experience and gives us some great conducting tips. Take it away, Tom.

A little about me and my experience.

I’m a freelance conductor based in Manchester in the UK. I conduct a variety of ensembles, mostly across the North of England including symphony orchestras, choirs, Musical Theatre and Opera. My training as a conductor began when I was about 16 with Sing for Pleasure. Their strategy of teaching gave me basic skills which i return to almost every time I conduct. This gave me a solid base upon which to build, and I then studied my Master’s Degree in Orchestral Conducting at the Royal Northern College of Music. Having trained as a singer originally, I really enjoy working with singers, but the majority of my work combines players and singers, both on the concert platform and in the orchestra pit.

I began training conductors about two years ago. Most of the requests I get are from musicians wanting to branch out into conducting – sometimes it’s part of a teaching job, sometimes they want to add new skills to their portfolio. I always like to work on a  project with my students. Technique sessions are useful of course, but it always helps when these can be implemented in the context of a piece of music. I begin with the basics: beating patterns, how to start and stop a choir, how to negotiate pauses and to change speed. Then I talk about the rehearsal process and we discuss some useful strategies to rehearse music effectively, with a variety of methods that can be used with a variety of groups.

A rehearsal technique that works for experienced singers in a chamber choir may not necessarily work for a community choir who are perhaps singing for the first time. Aside from this, score preparation is an important topic, or if the music is being delivered by ‘rote’, we talk through the teaching techniques, such as pitch matching and call and response, and how to rehearse this effectively without having to stop and explain things.

Fundamentals of what makes a good conductor in rehearsal

A basic technique and a solid grasp of it are an important starting point. When you’re conducting, you have no time to be worrying about whether you are beating properly – the focus has to be on the singers. Efficiency in rehearsals is paramount for me. I always approach a piece for the first time by singing it through with the choir. They will naturally make mistakes, but I want to give them the chance to work things out for themselves, and to make mistakes confidently! At the start of a rehearsal, I think it is important not to stop too often. A detailed and varied warm-up followed by singing through a piece – or a section of a piece – is a good way to set things off.

It’s important to know what you want from a rehearsal. It could be getting the notes right and gaining the choir’s confidence with pitching, or later on in the rehearsal series it could be working on transition passages, and bringing some of the finer details to the music. But the key here is always knowing what you want. That said, things seldom go totally to plan so having a streak of spontaneity and being able to react to what you hear is important too.

Working quickly is vital. When you stop the choir, the conductor should make no more than two concise and salient point before rehearsing the passage in question. The singers need to understand why the conductor has stopped and hear the benefits of their comments as the choir improves. I try to end all my rehearsals on a high. Consolidation of a piece is always good, so the choir can really see what they have achieved in this rehearsal. At the end of the day, they come to choir to sing, not to be talked to, so a good balance of uninterrupted singing and ‘stop-start’ rehearsing is the key.

In the second part of this article, Tom talks about what makes a good conductor in performance, and the top mistakes he sees in novice conductors.

Comments on What makes a great choir leader? – with Tom Newall: Part 1

  1. Great article. 2 salient points and then continue – yes!

    Laura

  2. Avatar Tom Newall says:

    Aw thanks, Ian! Fond memories! Hope all is well with you

  3. Avatar Ian Whitfield says:

    As someone who has had the pleasure of being rehearsed by Tom (Poohbah, Hot Mikado), I can also add that the fun, energy and enjoyment of what you are doing also makes a great conductor and the rehearsal period a pleasure to attend. Tom has all these attributes and more which sets him aside from other conductors.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Great point Ian, the charisma and energy of a conductor is really important and will make people want to return to the choir.

  4. Avatar Martin K. says:

    Really good, I fully agree ?

  5. Avatar Helen Wade says:

    Absolutely brilliant piece by Tom Newall – thank you! An inspired choice TCR! I am also training with Sing for Pleasure – brilliant for conductor training and for singers who want to develop their musicianship. I’m particularly overjoyed to read from Tom that the rehearsal I led with my community choir last night was exactly as he described in his piece (yes I learnt rehearsal technique at Sing for Pleasure too and it is ingrained!) Thank you so much. it’s great to feel reassured that you’re on the right track as a choral conductor. I look forward to Tom’s second article.

  6. Avatar Suzanne says:

    What does “a detailed and varied warm-up” mean? A concrete example would help make your meaning clear. Thanks.

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi Suzanne. Thanks for your question. We didn’t ask Tom to write about warm-ups, but about the attributes that make a good choir leader. Perhaps we’ll be able to persuade him to come back and tell us how he warms up a choir.

      In the meantime, you could have a look at our article called Pick n mix warm-ups for choirs for some ideas about how to structure a warm-up session. And if you haven’t already, sign up for our cheat sheet – 10 Fun & Easy Warm-ups for your Choir (there’s a link at the top right of any page).

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