Prescriptions for Conducting (and Building) Creative Singers
Dr. David Fryling, Professor of Music, Hofstra University
President, Eastern Division of the American Choral Directors Association
In my hundreds of hours working with senior and middle school choir directors and their choirs, I’ve noticed that conducting is often seen as equal parts terrifying, mystifying, and even “extra-musical.” I think that’s because too often as conductors we try to “perform at” instead of “dance with” our ensembles, and consequently end up accidentally tamping down a vital part of the group’s responsibility: creativity in the moment.
When ensembles are invited in as equal musical partners, their members take much deeper ownership of the process.
What if we explored ways in which we can be less controlling in our gesture? What if, in order to challenge the ensemble to explore their own musicianship, we viewed our gestures not as pre- and proscriptive hand-signals, but rather as invitations to contribute something unique?
My experience provides this resounding answer: When ensembles are invited in as equal musical partners, their members take much deeper ownership of the process, and actively engage their own creativity in both rehearsal and performance. Finding this creative space is an intensely collaborative exercise, involving mindful attention from both conductor and ensemble—in fact, I can think of no other classroom experience where the “two-way street” of teaching is more evident, nor more satisfying.
In an effort to help facilitate the building of this space, let’s take a closer look at the main challenges faced by the lead partner in this dance, the conductor. I find that a good way to explore this is to confront what makes conducting terrifying, mystifying, and extra-musical head on:
- Conducting is terrifying because it’s not natural. Like any high-level skill, conducting takes practice within the context of actionable expert feedback. I find the biggest barrier for most emerging or struggling conductors is that they lack this feedback loop. And because of this, their practice focus is usually misguided. Since standing in front of a group of people waving our arms while making faces is unnatural, we all can feel self-conscious about how we look. We then become too concerned with what “looks right” in a mirror, too tied up in left-hand/right-hand independence practice, and so on. And while all of these physical skills are important, the true answers to becoming a less terrified and more natural conductor lie in connecting with the students’ eyes in front of you.
- Conducting can be mystifying because we’re often taught only how to do it, not why. How many times have you found yourself staring at a score asking yourself, “How would my conducting teacher do this gesture?” What if you instead posited the more significant question, “What does my ensemble need/not need from me here to be successful?” Because we don’t often really ask ourselves why we’re necessary, conducting can remain cloaked in mystery. However, the answer to the “why” will be found once you begin your search for it in a context that includes both partners in this dance.
- Conducting feels extra-musical when we do it “at” them rather than “with” them. Have you ever tried to nail down everything your gesture is actually responsible for? It’s a surprisingly small list that basically boils down to 1) suggesting shapes, 2) evoking character, and 3) inspiring the ensemble to rise to be their best selves. And all three of these responsibilities are acutely reliant on meaningful, person-to-person communication. But instead our gesture is often “pasted on top of” the sound, flung toward the ensemble in the minimal hope that the syntax is right, the beats are decipherable, and everyone gets a clean cutoff. Once our focus shifts to meaningful communication, we become less focused on our physicality (and all the self-conscious second guessing that goes along with that) and more focused on both getting our thoughts across and genuinely listening to theirs.
Growing into a conductor that builds creative space into the rehearsal and concert hall is a long-term commitment to philosophical change. The defining relationship of conductor and choir must be one of reciprocal trust and high expectation, musical and non-musical. Unfortunately, there is no shortcut to building trust. We cannot grow musicians without giving them the room and time to do so.
But by taking the time to find this creative space, we allow ourselves to be fully “in the joy” of enabling other people to tell their stories, simultaneously. Finding this creative space allows us to make partners of everyone in the room. Finding this creative space opens everyone to the possibility of meaningful shared human experiences. And isn’t this what being a musician—and music educator—is truly about?
I hope you’ll join me at the 2015 NAfME National In-Service Conference on Monday, October 26th, at 8:40 a.m. Together we will explore a bunch of activities built around finding this trust, and aimed at setting each of us on a path to finding more creative space as conductor-teachers. I look forward to meeting you there!
About the author:
Dr. David Fryling is Professor of Music and Director of Choral Studies at Hofstra University, where he conducts the select Chorale and Chamber Choir, teaches beginning through graduate-level studies in Choral Conducting and Literature, and supervises choral music education student teachers during their field placements. David’s recent invitations include various all-state and regional honor choirs, master classes, workshops, and adjudications throughout the Northeast, and in Virginia, North Carolina, Michigan, Tennessee, Louisiana, Texas, Utah, and Alaska. During the summers of 2007 to 2013 he served as conductor of the World Youth Honors Choir and Festival Choir and Orchestra at the Interlochen Arts Camp, and has been a guest artist for the past two summers at the NYSSSA Choral program in Fredonia, NY. He is the founding conductor and artistic director of eVoco Voice Collective, currently serves as president of the Eastern Division of ACDA, and was inducted in the fall of 2014 into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame as “Educator of Note.” Read David’s full biography and more about his work at his website.
David will be presenting on his topic “A Creative Space: Prescriptions for Conductin g (and Building) Creative Singers” at the 2015 NAfME National In-Service Conference this month in Nashville, TN! Register today!
Join us for more than 300 innovative professional development sessions, nightly entertainment, extraordinary performances from across the country, a wild time at the Give a Note Extravaganza, and tons of networking opportunities with over 3,000+ other music educators! Learn more and register today: http://bit.ly/Nafville2015. And follow the hashtag #Nafville2015!
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