Mannerisms and Bad Habits

by John Paulson


We all have them. And some of them are our most unique, notable traits as conductors. There are some though, that reside in many conductors, myself included, that quite simply have a negative effect on our music making. These are very basic. We’ve probably all been admonished at some point or another about those listed below.

  1. Beating time
    • The function of a conductor is NOT to beat time. We’re responsible for setting a tempo. We’re responsible for communicating tempo changes. But it is the responsibility of ensemble members to keep a steady tempo. You shouldn’t stand for anything less. Giving your ensemble members that job will free you up to more effectively communicate important musical information through your gesture (e.g. dynamics, articulations, phrasing, emotion). And though there may be some growing pains, developing this skill will result in your ensemble being able to more effectively translate into sound the musical information you provide in your conducting.
    • There are a number of techniques you can use to develop this skill in your ensemble members. Sustain tempo in warm-ups. Insist on a steady tempo when performing warm-up exercises. Keep a steady tempo throughout any exercise, even during breaths and rests. This will help get the ensemble in that mindset from the beginning of rehearsal.
    • Make your ensemble aware of a tempo by providing it in an obvious manner. I’ll ask my group to sing a phrase or section in which they’re having trouble keeping a steady tempo while I drum the tempo on a hard surface with a pencil. Yes, it’s obnoxious. But they quickly become conscious of the issue. Once they’re able to sing the phrase in tempo while I drum I’ll have them physically keep the tempo themselves while they sing. Sometimes I ask them to tap themselves or I may have them tap their neighbor on the shoulder. I also conduct while they tap. Finally, I’ll set the tempo with a cue and then stop conducting so they’re forced to keep the tempo.
  2. Singing along
    • Singing to model a particular tone quality, or phrasing, or dynamic level/change is, of course, an effective rehearsal technique. Singing along with a section during rehearsal isn’t. Much like keeping a steady tempo, we should expect nothing less of our singers than being self-sufficient when it comes to effectively performing their parts. Consistent vocal support from the conductor during rehearsal undermines the development of self-sufficient singers.
    • Often we sing along for the sake of expediency. It can allow the choir to get through a troublesome passage without having to stop for a section that hasn’t quite learned their part. It can mask balance or intonation issues. The masking of one section’s problem is compounded by the fact that when we’re singing, we’re not listening as closely. This all contributes to less efficient and less effective rehearsals. Instead of singing along, allow sections to struggle through difficult passages. Put in the extra time it might take for a section to perfect something they find challenging. They’ll feel a much greater sense of accomplishment. Seeing/hearing what they accomplished they’ll be motivated for future challenges. And ultimately, your choir will be better.
  3. Talking incessantly
    • There are a number of verbal habits that can creep into our rehearsal routines and when left unchecked they will slow things down to a crawl. One big culprit is consistently having to repeat instructions. Before we blame our members for simply not listening or being unfocused, we should look at ourselves to see if we’re contributing to the problem.
    • Some of us, myself included, have a tendency to ramble on and/or repeat ourselves when giving instructions or explaining a musical idea. Challenge yourself to be precise and to the point. Don’t say in four sentences what could be said in four words. Don’t ramble through instructions or explanations in which you’re saying variations of the same idea multiple times. These are the kinds of things that lead to lost attention and missed instructions. Set the expectation that you are going to move quickly, but not frantically, and that you expect your choir members to hear and follow instructions the first time. The conductor is in charge of rehearsal pacing, not the choir.
    • Being precise and to the point will lead to more efficient rehearsals and more rapid improvement in your ensemble’s musical skills. It also adds to the impact of those times when you do take a few moments to relay a personal anecdote, or give more detailed explanations of compositional techniques, or historical background.
  4. Tapping a baton on a stand to get the ensemble’s attention
    • Just say no.

Posted on Nov 26, 2012 7:23:45 AM
Filed Under: Choral Techniques and Repertoire, Filed Under: review-prelude,

John Paulson

Written by John Paulson

John Paulson graduated with a BA in Music from Luther College in 1991 and earned his Master of Music in Choral Conducting from Boston University in 1998. He currently serves as Music Director/Choir Conductor at University Lutheran in Cambridge, MA, a position he has held since 2003. His additional conducting/teaching experience includes time as the Assistant Choir Conductor at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel, Interim Head of Choral Activities at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Adjunct Faculty in Music at Lesley University and Visiting Music Instructor at Boston College. John currently lives in Boston where he and his wife Brenna Wells work hard to keep up with their two year old son Rowan.