What makes a great choir leader? – with Tom Newall: Part 2

In the first part of this two-part article, Tom introduced himself and discussed what makes a good conductor in rehearsal. In this second part, he turns to the subjects of performance, and the top mistakes he sees in novice conductors.

Fundamentals of what makes a good conductor in performance

In performance, the conductor must exude positive energy and confidence in their choir. They are there to remind the singers of details and to give them the confidence to stand there and perform. I always ask myself why is the music written like this? What story are we telling? The conductor must bring out the narrative and drama in a performance so that it might be translated across to the audience. Never forget that the music the choir have been rehearsing for ten weeks will probably have never been heard by that night’s audience!

Being confident in yourself as a conductor means decisive body language, even when things are going wrong and there is a lack of confidence the ensemble. As I write this, I’m currently working in the USA at a Music College where I’ve helped out on a production of Sondheim’s Assassins. Last night the conductor fell sick an hour before the show. Ten minutes later I was putting on my concert blacks ready to go on stage. There were many questions and apprehensions in my mind – but I knew I couldn’t let these show to the orchestra or the cast. I sometimes think of conductors as actors, every step of the way being strongly in character.

Top mistakes I see conductors making.

The most common problem I see is inefficient rehearsing. Many conductors have a clear idea of what they want, but not how to achieve it. too many of them rehearse by running pieces repeatedly, without explaining what they want to be different.

I often see conductors who over-praise – telling the choir it is good when we all know it was not! It takes time and experience to find the right language and temperament to constructively and concisely criticise. I have met many conductors who blame the choir for their own shortcomings, especially when they are inexperienced. I think it’s very important to be open and honest – accept when you make a mistake, move on, and don’t make the same mistake twice!

People skills are so important, but very personal to every conductor. What works for one person may not for another. I have seen conductors who seem to talk down to the choir, and get too irate too quickly when things don’t go so well. It’s important to remember that most people come to choir for a hobby. Yes, they want to achieve high standards, but it’s entirely possible to do this and have lots of fun at the same time.

Tom Newall

tomnewall.com

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