The Art of Falling into Conducting

Many people talk about falling into different jobs and vocations; admin, teaching, catering, call centre work, media and marketing, just to mention a few. Well I chose teaching as my career and it ended up leading me to doing something quite different alongside.

I started University planning to work hard at my teaching degree. Previous to University I spent every evening and most weekends at dance lessons with piano and singing lessons thrown in. I spent the daytime at the weekends having a part time job meaning college work was the last priority. My A level grades were fine and I got into University, after working for a year full time, determined that the main focus at University would be my degree.

I planned to join only one University society; the student choir. The idea was that I would go to choir once a week leaving other evenings free for study and dinner with my flat mates. If the work load got too much or if I was on placement, I would lessen my commitment to the choir. I decided that I would not take on any extra roles in the choir as in previous hobbies I had ended up taking on so much extra work that spare time had become a distant dream.

In hindsight I probably should have realised that this was never going to happen. All it took was for me to be reminded just how beautiful choral harmonies are and to notice how wonderful it is to gain like-minded friends. By the new year, a chorally committed fresher, who had already become a close friend of mine, managed to persuade me to stand for a committee position. And so, in February 2013, I stood for the role of Treasurer. I lost the role to a competitor who was much better qualified in Mathematics. This did not deter me.

By this point I was spending my evenings in the following ways; at choir, at A Cappella (I will explain this one shortly), bell ringing or in the pub with a bunch of singers and musicians. Now eager to polish my clarinet and piano playing, the trap was set. I was about to become very committed to music. However, despite these new commitments, my course did not suffer, if anything the hobbies made me happier and more motivated all round.

So, A Cappella. It was not a practice that I had previously thought much about. I had seen Pitch Perfect and it wasn’t really my cup of tea although the idea creating music purely with vocals was an appealing one and always satisfying to hear.
The Winter of 2012- 2013 was, as you will probably remember, a particularly wet one. Although it was not until the following year that the Dawlish line became entirely unusable, there were many floods and delays on the railway at that time. It was as the result of one such delay that I ended up on a train with Lia. That day the train was packed to the brim. We were all packed together so tightly that we had no choice but to socialise. I made many new acquaintances that day but Lia remained my friend. It turned out that Lia was studying at another local University and played in the orchestra run at my University. We had many mutual friends but most interestingly Lia had just started an A Cappella group at her University. What happened next is a perfect example of how to end up with an unexpected commitment. I said “Oh that’s cool, I wish we had an A Cappella group” and Lia replied “Well let’s start one”. I wondered if she might forget about it, but it was not to so!

Roughly three weeks later, the group was formed. For several months we practiced for an hour a week, with Lia as our conductor, in a growing group of enthusiastic singers. We then decided to become a University society so that we could gain more performance opportunities. So okay, I was busy, but it was more or less manageable. Then the group of enthusiastic future committee members decided that I should stand for Chair, they also decided that none of them wanted to stand for Chair. So there it was, my first position of responsibility in a University society. However, this was still far from over. During the Autumn term our conductor found out that her placement after Christmas would prevent her from having time to direct A Cappella. This is when I was told that I would follow in her footsteps and become the new musical director.

I spent Christmas planning and YouTube-ing, asking conductor friends for advice, and planning some more. Then January came, and it began. And despite the huge amount of dread I felt for the 24 hours before the first rehearsal, it actually went pretty well and, more or less continued to do so. Over the term I felt my naive conducting style improve significantly in addition to the singers progressively working better as a team as well as improving their individual skills. Perhaps we were not working in a conventional style but we were achieving something a bit different and enjoying ourselves in the mean time. After all, isn’t enjoyment the most important part of communal singing?

Not long after I began conducting, talk of the next choir AGM began. I was asked if I was going to go up for a position, but I wasn’t sure. Design and promotions, maybe? Health and Safety, perhaps? But for each role I thought of their seemed to be more enthusiastic others going up for the same position. Did I really want any of these roles enough?

A year previously a friend had tried to persuade myself and two others to stand for the role of musical director. To start with, I had said no definitely not, I wasn’t a conductor! However, one year later I was asked again and this time I started to seriously consider the role. I experimented by asking to conduct a piece for the Spring concert. After the first rehearsal of that piece, I decided to stand for the role. As you can probably guess, this time around I was successful in gaining the position I stood for. My enthusiastic fresher friend, Rose, was simultaneously successful in gaining the role of Chair.

Since then I have become involved in the process of starting a school choir and joined conducting classes. In addition myself, Rose and my boyfriend have joined another local choir of an older age group to further our choral experiences. Conducting is now as big a part of my life as dance was just a few years ago. I suppose that it is in my nature to engage in the arts no matter how I try and battle it! I feel a passion and dedication to this role. I love to hear the harmonies come together and notice individual singers gain confidence. Consequently I spend much time researching around the role and questioning choral and orchestral conductors. I have learnt a lot from this; conducting can only really be practiced on the job. You can do it in front of the mirror but it is nowhere near the same. It isn’t just having knowledge of musical matters or singing and piano grades or being able to count a bar that makes a musical director. Conducting involves an innate feeling for the music and an effort to work with your choir to shape the sounds and encourage them to use their voices as the wonderful instruments they are not to mention a burning passion for singing. This passion is what ultimately led me to the roles I have at present and the plans I have to improve my conducting in the future. Another conductor told me recently that it is important to have some humour when conducting; I suppose this goes back to my feeling that singing should, ultimately, be for joy. My degree is still incredibly important to me and a huge focus in my life. I find that the two things complement each other as well as knowing that conducting is a skill that could be transferred directly into school life. I couldn’t be happier with how things have turned out.

And so, that is how you accidentally fall into one of the most specific hobbies you could possibly have! And how do I feel about it now? Well I love it. It’s as simple as that.