Conducting — Letting Go of Bad Habits

Conducting—Letting Go of Bad Habits

By NAfME Member Michael Murphy

The choral music educator’s job, according to Michael Murphy, “while rewarding, is a complex one. Sometimes it seems that managing the choral music program has very little to do with music-making and more to do with paperwork, parents, and politics.”

But the goal is to be an artist and to model for your ensemble what is intended by the music. Murphy continues: “Conducting with intent, with the goal to look like the music, can be an act of inspiration for your singers.”


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Here are six issues that can get in the way; avoid these if you can:

1. High conducting.  If your arms are above your shoulders when you direct an ensemble, you may experience “high, shallow breathing and tension at the top of your vocal tract.”  Solution:  Lower your arms so your preparation gesture and breath occur in front of the lower abdomen. This conveys the idea of a supported tone connected to the breath.

2. Beginning a musical selection with multiple beats.  (Murphy calls this “getting ready to get ready.”)  Solution:  Provide all the necessary information with a single preparation beat that shows the quality of breath and musical character of the piece (e.g., tempo, dynamics articulation, energy).

3. Constantly conducting large.  Ensembles accustomed to large gestures become desensitized to their meaning.  Solution:  “The smallest gesture that is clear and musical is the best gesture,” Murphy advises. “Effective conductors have a variety of large and small gestures at their disposal.”

4. Unnecessary, unconscious, and constant subdivision.  This makes a group needlessly nervous and produces information overload.  Solution:  To teach the all-important concept of legato singing, pretend your hand is a paintbrush, and imagine conducting underwater.

5. Constantly mouthing the words.  Except for young choirs, who need occasional reminders, this can confuse the chorus.  Solution:  Don’t.

6. The belief the choir needs you to show them everything.  You don’t have to cue every nuance. Solution:  Concise and limited conducting “should remind your singers of musicality already ingrained,” says Murphy.

Michael Murphy is director of choral activities and professor of conducting at the University of Idaho. This article is adapted with permission from “Conducting Refresher: Letting Go of Bad Habits” by Michael Murphy, University of Idaho, published in the Fall 2011 Idaho Music Notes, volume 52, no. 1, p. 19.  

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Ella Wilcox, originally posted March 16, 2012, © National Association for Music Education (