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?

Comments on The no. 1 mistake most choir leaders make

  1. Avatar Sara Conrad says:

    Yup, that’s me too! Must remember that ‘less is more’ when you conduct. Actually true for most performance genres actually! Think Michael Caine……

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks Sara, a great point.

  2. This is excellent. Dead right!

  3. Avatar Nsosah says:

    what does it take to discipline a choir?

  4. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

    “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.

  5. Avatar Mary says:

    Hello Victoria
    This article reminded me of a recent event when I played in a handbell chorus and a visiting conductor coached us for an imprompt concert. We were a small group, but comfortable with a couple of run-throughs and good to go. This conductor fit your description to a “t”. It was not only distracting for us – we wondered if he was going to grab our bells and ring them for us, his long thin arms were reaching towards us individually to direct our every note. The audience was quite taken aback as well, and before we were even complimented on our repertoire and performance following the concert, the response was focused on the flamboyantly flailing and absolutely inappropriate conductor who was quite proud of his “style”.
    As your article said, it IS the number one mistake.

    Now, I’d like to mention that, in my view, the number two mistake is the opposite scenario to number one; a conductor with no skills, unclear and minimal directing with a “take me as I am” attitude. Both offer little direction, to put it bluntly.

    However, it is hoped that all aspiring and practicing director/conductors continuously attempt to expand and hone their skills. For the novice conductor, there are not a lot of opportunities or courses available to learn to direct. In other articles you’ve written, you’ve encouraged people to expose themselves to other directors and choral productions. I wholeheartedly agree with that. Everyone has their own way of doing things. It is not rocket science to see who is effective, and who is not. The goal is to observe what they do, and learn from it.

    Thank you for your posts. I find them very timely as well as encouraging. I’ve been directing for 20 years plus and it is a responsibility I thoroughly enjoy. I do hope my love for what I do is felt by the members of the choir.

    I have always told myself that they (the choir members) give me what I ask for. The current group are delightful people, the membership evolves from one year to the next but consistently adequate for SATB. They make good requests for songs they like, and I’ve not had one complaint.

    Keep up the good work, as I mentioned, I find your articles to be very encouraging.


  6. Avatar Megan Long says:

    I fully understand what you mean by this, but I have a particular problem…I conduct a choir which was started as a health initiative by Poole council several years ago, and most of my members are elderly, and hard of hearing /poorly sighted. I soon learned when I took over that unless my gestures were pretty big, they ignored both me and the accompanist and went their own sweet way!
    They understand now that if I move my conducting arm right up, they must increase volume…when I bring my finger to my lips they must quieten down…etc etc. I feel if I made my gestures any smaller they would be lost.. I am trying to calm down, as I do get comments about my conducting style, but for my lot its all part of the fun…:-)
    The choir I sing with has no conductor….It;s brilliantly led by the piano player/MD and there’s no conductor the get out of the way…if only my own choir could do that!!
    So, in conclusion, although smaller gestures would be preferable, I’m afraid I shall just have to go on with my more expansive gestures, and hope it doesn’t irritate the audience too much!

    1. Avatar Victoria says:

      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.

  7. Avatar singingman says:

    Excellent point, well made! We’re all guilty of it at some point.

    One of the best ever choir sessions I ran was when I’d lost my voice completely. Everything seemed to go in slow motion, all my gestures were small and smooth. The choir’s attention was rapt because I couldn’t speak. All eyes were on me all the time, even the smallest movement. It was wonderful!

    Often, when rehearsing we give out loads of energy because we’re encouraging the choir. Then in performance we forget that THEY are then supposed to be giving out the energy.

    My own philosophy is that my job as a choir leader is to eventually make myself redundant! Sometimes I wander off in the middle of a song and rely on the choir to work together to make it happen.

    For an audience too, if they can’t actually see the choir leader’s gestures, then they focus on the singers and the singing. When I go to a concert I just want the conductor to GET OUT OF THE WAY!

    From the Front of the Choir:

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