Choral Conducting Tune-Up

Even experienced conductors may find that bad habits creep into their technique on occasion. To remedy this, a review of basics may prove helpful. “I feel that one of the primary tenets of conducting is that the gesture should always reflect the desired sound,” says Jeffrey Bauman, professor of music, director of choral and vocal activities at Young Harris College in Young Harris, Georgia, and Chair-elect of NAfME’s National Choral Advisory Council. “A lack of confidence in the leader of a group reveals itself in many ways, from conductors who simply follow their groups, unable to effect any expression or musicality, to those who try to control too many aspects of the performance. Conductors must be confident in their ability to convey meaning with an efficiency of gesture, and avoid trying to give too much information to the ensemble.”

“…the gesture should always reflect the desired sound.”

Several technical problems, then, can center on “over-conducting” musicians in terms of the beat. “For example, it is all too common, especially in beginning conductors, to start a piece of music by conducting through an entire bar in preparation, even if the song begins with a piano introduction. A single preparatory gesture should convey all the necessary musical information to the entire ensemble,” notes Bauman. “Another common conducting mistake is to subdivide the beat for the group when they should be doing it themselves. Even experienced conductors often find themselves subdividing unnecessarily, leading to a lack of clarity in tempo and style.”

One very straightforward way to improve one’s technique may be to mind one’s posture. “Musicians are by and large, sensitive, insightful human beings. Especially when they are tuned in to a conductor visually, they will react to every aspect of that person’s body language,” remarks Bauman. “Try conducting a passage of music with your group twice with same musical intention: Once with very poor posture and once with perfect posture. Notice not only the difference in the sound of the group, but in the resulting posture and energy level of the members of the ensemble.”

Bauman further suggests that working in front of a large mirror and recording rehearsals from the ensemble’s point of view can provide insights into one’s conducting technique. Additionally the Georgia Music Educators Association sponsors a program called the Large Group Performance Evaluation, whereby the skills of individual students, ensembles, and music educators can be assessed in terms of sight-reading and performance ability. “In Georgia, there is an opportunity at Large Group Performance Evaluation for a student conductor from the choir to be evaluated by the sight-reading judge. This means extra work for the teacher in preparation for the event, but it can be rewarding both for the student and the teacher.” Even the act of readying a student for an activity such as this can be beneficial for a director’s technique. “There is an old saying that says ‘you don’t really know anything until you teach it.’ I know that since I began teaching conducting several years ago, I find myself spending a lot more time conducting in front of a mirror.”—Susan Poliniak

From Teaching Music, April 2014, by Susan Poliniak. Contriburtor, Jeff Bauman, Council for Choral Education. Copyright © 2014 by National Association for Music Education.