10 Things I Wish I Had Known When I Started Conducting

  1. Organisation is great but it is okay to change things if it is for the best: When taking over a choir or orchestra, conductors appear to go one of two ways. They either organise to the max noting down every detail and (as recommended by my conducting teacher) create a rehearsal schedule, or alternatively they wing it. Generally the style I would recommend is organisation; it will save you much hassle, last minute work and improve the overall quality of the sessions; although obviously each individual group varies as to how much organisation is required. However, flexibility should not be completely overlooked. As I discovered this year, there will be parts of each and every plan that are just not working or need some major adaptation. It can be hard to break away from a carefully mapped out plan and take a risk but it can be so worthwhile. For example, in the Autumn I spent much time striving to be inspired by a piece suggested by a choir member, which had already been timetabled into the rehearsal schedule, only to come to the conclusion that I had wasted a lot of time trying to harmonise a piece that just wasn’t going to work for our group. Then, at a local jam night, I suddenly had a burst of inspiration, decided on a new piece, began to arrange it and finished within hours. This ended up being one of the favourite pieces of the concert. In comparison, our idea for a theme for this particular concert changed six or seven times before we settled for a definite. So overall, I’d suggest that yes, it is good to have a plan, but it is also good to be open to new ideas, adaptations and updates even if they seem scary and last minute. End quality rules over all else.

    (Pictured Below) The Insanity of the Rehearsal Schedule

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  2. You need to enjoy the pieces you choose: Over time I have taken suggestions, perhaps more so for A Cappella than Choir as that better suit the dynamic of the group. However, when it comes to suggestions there need to be two strict requirements; potential for high quality and your own engagement with the piece. If you are not inspired by the piece, then your members won’t be. If the piece will not develop the members musically, provide enjoyment and inspire you then there is simply no point in including it. Suggestions are an interesting one to look out for; they can be a God send or the Devil himself so don’t be scared to pick and choose. So long as your decision is for the overall good of the choir then you know it is the right one.
  3. Beating and Expression: Conducting is not just about keeping time. Keeping time is the bare minimum. It means that the singers have a highly improved chance of staying in time with you, each other and the accompaniment, but not much else. If you want expression from the singers then you are going to need to indicate to them what you want. Nine times out of ten, these indications need to be much more obvious than you first assumed and may require vocal instruction the first two or three times. Directors develop a variety of ways in which to do this; through gesture, facial expression, body language or use of eyebrows! Find what works for you and make sure that at all times you are giving some indication of what the mood and dynamics of the piece should be. It is true that some directors go completely OTT and end up ripping their jackets/ knocking things over/ sweating all over the place etc… but better that than a rigid conductor who inspires no passion from their singers.
  4. Singers using score will almost never look up at the conductor unless reminded continuously: This is actually a tremendously tricky problem. I am still in the early days of working out how to resolve it. Over my time conducting it has been very clear that the A Cappella singers who are working without score always look at the director whereas the Choir members who usually have score rarely look up. Although A Cappella is a smaller and newer society, the general quality of dynamics, general togetherness and exhibitions of enjoyment seemed to be much greater than those displayed in Choir due to A Cappella members being forced to look up. A Cappella members have been able to focus on the dynamics, expression and overall joy of singing in a group whereas many choir members hide behind the score unless tricked into coming out! As a result we have chosen to teach many of the songs to the school choirs without lyric sheets in order to help them grow to sing harmoniously and to listen to each other. In the University Choir, I have experimented with a few different methods. First of all, the old reliable. Telling people to look up whilst rehearsing a piece in the hope that it will eventually become habit. Next, the holistic method; explaining to the singers exactly why they need to look up and exactly how it will benefit them. Then we sang a song that we all knew well without the score during a rehearsal. This worked really well but as soon as they got the score back they were hidden again. Lastly, the method I have not yet tried, sticking funny notes to, mainly the other conductors’ head, so that people have a reason to look up.
  5. Standing still is hard!!!: When you are directing, especially if it is an upbeat piece, it can be incredibly difficult to stand still. Expression is good yes, however moving your feet and legs around is somewhat unnecessary. The venue, group and style affect the difficulty of this factor hugely. For example in A Cappella, it is much harder not to dance around, however it is nowhere near such a big crime, in fact sometimes it can even be helpful. Then, with the school choirs it is often absolutely necessary to engage in movement. It is the University Choir that can be a challenge. Bath Abbey was a formal enough venue that I more or less remembered throughout not to dance; other venues are much trickier. The only real resolution to this is practice and concentration… as if you didn’t already have enough to think about!

    (Pictured Below) The first A Cappella concert during which I danced, a lot!

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  6. There will always be people that will try to make you doubt your musical ability: During my last ever conducting class a dagger-like letter received by one of the other students, from a member of one of his choirs, got us on to the topic of those singers that spend their time picking holes in everything and anything. The revelation of this letter turned into a sombre moment when I bravely vocalised the feeling that had been growing and intensifying over the past year; “this really is the hardest bit of conducting, isn’t it”. It wasn’t a question and the shared silence of seven adults showed just how difficult this topic can be. The discussion that followed was the most valuable of all my conducting classes; in fact, it would have been extremely helpful if this had been the first class of the year rather than the last! My extremely experienced teacher went into deep analysis of this issue highlighting potential causes and possibilities for making these incidents more manageable and less hurtful. He suggested that there can be a few reasons why these individuals or cliques may begin to cause upset. He suggested that in most cases it is an insecurity; these can then range from talented singers being bored by other singers, who take a bit longer to learn, therefore causing the talented members to either feel bored or feel a need to assert their musical authority, all the way to those who have many personal insecurities that they struggle to deal with on a daily basis or musical ones; you are an easy person for them to take it out on. Of course there is often some combined element concerning the causes including, dare I say it, jealousy. My conducting teacher suggested that some members may think the director is taking all the glory meaning that the director needs to make it as obvious as possible how little they intend to take the glory and how grateful they are for the work put in by the singers. In my experience, very few conductors are in it for the ‘glory’ but little actions can be misconceived. Similarly to the ‘looking up’ issue, this is a tricky one to balance in terms of finding a happy space between over-complimenting and under-appreciating. This just takes practice in finding the balance and of course the balance will be completely different for each choir. The most important thing I discovered is that as a conductor you have no obligation to justify yourself to hole pickers. If I had only known this a year ago I could have saved myself a lot of trouble! The problem is that however kindly you try to explain your actions to this kind of member it is often irrelevant. You could compile the most top notch and convincing justification for your ideas but someone will still find, or possibly even create, a new problem to focus on. My conducting teacher taught me some polite ways of explaining to members that you will not be justifying yourself in this situation the best of which seemed to be “There are very good reasons why this has been done but I am afraid I am not in a position to share them”. This line could have saved me many long and well-intended discussions over time. It can be very intimidating but actually no one has the right to make you feel that way. Early on I made the mistake of changing something in a piece I had arranged during a rehearsal where I felt like I must be an awful director as a result of interruptions being made. Turned out the change made the piece sound odd and I only had to come back to it the following week and change it back to how I had originally arranged it. I suppose my mistake there was assuming that everyone would be supportive and that if they were not then I had clearly done something wrong. Have some faith in yourself; you got this role for a reason.

Do what you feel in your heart is right, for you’ll be criticized anyway”- Eleanor Roosevelt.

  1. It is okay to make mistakes: This is a fact that also applies strongly to my teaching career! Mistakes are unavoidable for human beings. Big, small, embarrassing or luckily overlooked, as tough as it may seem we can choose to let mistakes make or break us. Early on in my conducting I made the mistake of believing that every single person in the choir was just waiting for me to make a mistake so that they could rip me to pieces. Perhaps I felt this way because I had only recently realised I was capable of conducting whereas the other and previous conductors of the choir had had much more self-confidence. I had been able to imply self-confidence for a long time but learning how to deal with mistakes when viewed by 40 odd choir members was a different challenge. The first time someone pointed out a mistake in my arrangements, as I mentioned before, it was not actually a mistake; just a slightly more exciting harmony than said member was used to 😉 However the mistake I then made was to change from what I had written, realise it sounded worse and then have to change it back the next week. It was embarrassing, not because my musical abilities had been degraded but because I had given in to a person whose voice was louder than mine; the old fashioned view that introverts are to be respected seems to be slowly coming back into fashion and my goodness I hope it catches on! However, I did learn from this mistake and since then if a person questions my arrangement I calmly look down and check it and, so far, all I have then had to do is explain the musical reasoning behind the choice as often this is what they have misunderstood. Obviously one day I won’t proof read properly and there will be a mistake in the score and, from observation of other directors, the best way to react to this is not to panic, just to take it as it is with a pinch of salt and a bit of humour and say something like “oh woops, clearly wasn’t concentrating on that bar! Everybody please mark such and such into the space instead”. Simple. You are just as human as the choir and have far more opportunities to publicly make mistakes so don’t fret when it happens however bad it might seem at the time. Chances are, you worry because you care so much about getting it right. However dwelling on worry rarely solves anything. Take a deep breath and engage in some good old British Keep Calm and Carry On.
  2. People will not necessarily see you as a normal person with feelings anymore: This is an odd one and possibly a little controversial. However, in my own observations and those of other conductors I know, there is a factor of a conductor almost becoming choir property once they take on the role. It can feel at times as if you are no longer an ordinary person with the same thoughts, hopes and desires as other members, but simply a music making machine that the choir may or may not pay direct attention to (Refer to No. 4)! Just remember that this is not personal. In fact, before your conducting days you were probably one of those people who saw the conductor as, possibly not even a particularly important, piece of the furniture and this can go for the pianist too! It is taken for granted that these musical people turn up, do the job and you are possibly even quite cautious around them in your conversations in the pub afterwards. I know I was initially.

Being choir property can also mean that people talk about you as such and even continue to do so after you leave. In a less exciting way, your life is like one of a celebrity whom people are allowed to express their opinions of openly, consistently and without guilt. It may be hard to hear but believe it or not, after a little while you will not be capable of caring less about these opinions.

  1. Despite this… you will make some really good friends and receive some unbeatable support: Conducting can bring the tough times, and, as is so often the case, when the hard times hit your true friends emerge out of the woodwork. Sure you have always got on with most people in the group and hopefully still do however there will be some people who will stand out. They may or may not be close friends. For me it was a combination of close friends who I bonded with even more so as we struggled through late night arrangements and logistical nightmares together, and members whose names I wasn’t even certain of beforehand. It is a wonderful moment when an otherwise quiet but keen member approaches you one day and tells you how choir is the highlight of their week and they love your choice of music! I only wish I had said that to some of the previous conductors I have sung for. Additionally, if the choir is going through a tough time maybe extensively rehearsing for a bunch of performances, dealing with a social issue or a significant illness, it is incredible to see which unexpected people show and voice their support. These brilliant comments make your day to a much greater extent than negative ones bring your day down. Seeing and hearing that you are the cause of a group of people’s musical enjoyment and addiction is one of the best things ever.
  2. You will learn so much more than you could have possibly imagined! However musical you may be, conducting is a steep learning curve. You cannot just be a strong musician. You must also be capable of bringing people together, inspiring others and improving quality amongst many other things. A combination of personality, dedication, musical ability and imagination is essential. I imagine that level of professionalism depends on the individual choir. It can be tricky to have a sense of humour on a dark, rainy evening when you arrive wind swept and distracted, perhaps preoccupied by a difficult day at work or a personal issue. However, you alone are responsible for the enjoyment of other members that night and the inspiration they feel from the music. Remember that they will all have their own issues too but the difference is you have given up the right to half participate whilst in a bad mood all evening and to half-heartedly and distractedly plod along in the background. Others may do so but no matter how tedious your day was you are in charge of the enjoyment of the members. Just like all the other elements of being a new conductor, this one gets easier surprisingly quickly.

Musically you will develop your own style to a great extent. It is a fantastic opportunity to be able to regularly hear your creations come to life and there is a definite sense of pride in conducting your arrangement at its peak and often in front of an audience. It always amazes me to hear how great a piece sounds when sung by humans for the first time rather than the computer!

However, the most important thing you will learn is love. It may sound corny but actually love is just as ingrained into human nature as mistake making. Some researchers say that humans sang before they spoke; well other animals communicate by pitch so it doesn’t seem that hard to believe. I suppose in a way infants communicate by pitch too when babbling or crying; be it more comparable to a small child playing a broken violin at times. (I love my Godchildren dearly but they do have some screech in them early in the morning!) Adults also communicate in pitch; if you listen to a person’s tone of voice you will hear different pitches for excited, dull, tired, content and every other emotion. If you have gone into conducting then you most likely already possess a love of music and strong ability but the love you gain from conducting is deeper and rarer. It is a wonderful feeling when you are able to bring a group of singers together, no matter if they are experienced or inexperienced, and create something harmonious. Harmony seems to be pleasing to all consumers of music; for example classical, folk, rock and pop music alike use harmony to create sensation. Being responsible for creating that harmony and shaping it with dynamics and tempo is an amazing feeling. That first time your choir gets a tricky phrase just right leads to a moment where you just want to dance around the room and hug each member individually. It is hard not to shock the choir at times with the overwhelming happiness you will feel when things come together. Of course, in rehearsal, only you can hear just how good it is. Most of the singers hear mainly their part with the others in the distance. What they hear may be great but the conductor is in such a special position where they are able to hear all parts equally from the sweetest spot in the room.

So ultimately, enjoy. There are challenges and there are huge rewards but so long as you take each day as it comes, keep calm and use your logic you should be fine. To any other new conductors out there, good luck and have fun! The first year is a tough one but an incredible experience and you will soon find yourself yearning for more! Having learnt so much during this short experience I wonder what the future has in store!

“Music is a more potent instrument than any other for education, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul”- Plato

*Please feel free to share any of your own experiences of conducting!

(Pictured Below) Conducting for my student choir’s Centenary Recital in November 2014.

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