The Importance of Good Conducting

by Bradley Ellingboe

Our role as church musicians means that we, almost without exception, lead amateur singers. Thus, we are teachers first and foremost, and most of our work is in that important role.

Almost all of us over-conduct in rehearsal, especially with amateur musicians. In order to get the sound I am after, I will plead, cajole, beg, brow beat, wheedle, tease, stomp, clap, and stand on my head. Some of my gesticulations are better suited to bringing a 747 into the hanger than creating a delicate choral balance! I bet you are the same.

This being the case, all of us are probably end up over-conducting a lot more often than we conduct “as we were taught in school.” And I put that last phrase in quotes, since it must be admitted that many church choir directors have never taken a conducting class. So, my advice today is two-fold.

First, I am a huge believer in recalibrating your conducting gesture when it is time for the performance. You must change your muscle memory from how you taught the piece, to how you intend to conduct the piece.

I know, I know. You’re thinking, “My choir never looks at me. If I don’t make these huge gestures, they’ll never sing.” That may well be… at first. But like anything worth doing, this kind of change takes practice. My larger point is that, if we are not careful, we are enablers of our choir’s worst habits. I propose that many of us who are in the driver’s seat are more comfortable with these gigantic gestures, because it makes us feel like we’re doing something, like we’re earning our keep. But you know, if we’re doing so much, it may make them shut down. It’s a lot to take in, if you’re trying to be the one making music, to see your conductor jumping up and down like a crazy person. I often tell my choir “Without you, I’m just a guy waving my arms. It’s YOU who are making music and my gestures are only meant to remind you of what we’ve rehearsed.”

My advice is to practice music over several weeks. To build things up in layers and, as their skill grows, and they have more ownership of the musical effects we’re trying for, that your conducting becomes less. Indeed, you might tell them “I’m doing less now. It’s up to YOU to make the music.

Second, I believe most of us get the music ready too fast. We ask our choir to learn it too quickly, so they cannot add to their knowledge of it in layers—they’re often hanging on for dear life and scared to come in unless you over-conduct. And often we have learned it too quickly, and insufficiently, as well. The big gestures can sometimes be the panicked waving of a drowning man. It all comes back to us.

We’re the ones in charge. If they can’t do something, it’s probably because we didn’t teach them how. If they won’t sing unless you over-conduct, it’s probably because you have never weaned them of the habit. Ultimately, as teachers, we want to take ourselves out of the equation. We want to make it so they can make music very nearly without us; a scary, but worthwhile, goal for a conductor.

Posted on Jan 28, 2013 10:16:06 AM
Filed Under: Choral Techniques and Repertoire, Filed Under: review-prelude,

Bradley Ellingboe

Written by Bradley Ellingboe

Bradley Ellingboe has led a wide-ranging career in the world of singing, including accomplishments as a choral conductor, soloist, composer, scholar and teacher. As a choral conductor he has led festival choruses in 38 states and 12 foreign countries. As a bass-baritone soloist he has sung under such conductors as Robert Shaw, Helmuth Rilling, and Sir David Willcocks. Ellingboe has over 110 pieces of music in print, including his largest work, the Requiem for chorus and orchestra, which made its Carnegie Hall debut with the composer conducting in 2010. For his scholarly work in making the songs of Edvard Grieg more accessible to the English-speaking public, he was knighted by the King of Norway in 1994. As a teacher, the University of New Mexico Alumni Association named him Faculty of the Year in 2008.