Conducting a capella - notes or rhythm?
  • gregpgregp
    Posts: 632
    I attended a concert last night in which I noticed something I had not seen before - normally the conductor gives (or has someone else give) the starting note(s) and then begins beating time to bring the singers in, but this conductor beat several measures, then stopped and had the pianist give the singers their first notes, and then they launched right into the piece.

    Thinking more about it, I can see where some people might have a harder time remembering their pitches than the tempo and need to be given those closer to the start of the piece.

    Comments? Do I just need to get out more?
  • Giving pitches (if at all necessary) should take place before the down-beat or any preparatory beats. The more falderol there is before singing begins the greater the distraction from the musical flow and disruption of expectations.
    For concerts, give pitches as needed (the tonic should be all that is required) and then launch into the down beat of a rehearsed tempo.
    For a capella motets and anthems at mass I alway improvise a short 'praeludium' in the style of the piece. This sets pitch, tempo and mood, after which one may launch directly and energetically into the down beat. Merely giving pitches is always distracting and amateurish. Train your people to get their pitches from such a 'praeludium', or if absolutely necessary, from a very quiet sounding of the tonic. (If you don't trust your improvising skills, there are plenty of such 'praeludia' by the Gabrielis and others in all keys and modes which are very satisfactory and apt, and were written for just such purposes.)
    Thanked by 2CHGiffen BruceL
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,676
    Would that is be so easy, Jackson. There is the 80-year-old bass who is too prideful to wear a hearing aid. Only if given on an en chamade trumpet could this guy come in anywhere near his pitch. And the soprano, still a diva, but whose mind left the planet far too many years ago. Or the tenor who plays with his phone during rehearsal, then realizes everyone else has started singing. Where do you find these flawless people in your choir, Jackson. Send some of them in this direction. I need them more than you. LOL.
  • For the children's choir, I give them the starting pitch. For the adults, I usually intone the first phrase on the organ and let them carry it from there. They also get the tempo from the intonation.
  • Blaise
    Posts: 439
    Sorry, but I have a slightly hard time with what the OP is saying. Do they mean that the conductor beats time for a while, gives the starting pitch, then the choir spontaneously starts singing without the conductor?? If yes, then that must be one well rehearsed group!
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 8,921
    Some conductors want their choirs to be self-starting. In practice, this seems to mean that they look at one another until somebody takes the step and indicates an upbeat by inhaling visibly.
  • I just don't think that I would ever do it the way the op is indicating. I would always give the starting pitch, or have the choir derive starting pitches from the introduction played on piano or organ. If there is an intro without the choir singing right away, I would already be conducting the accompanist, so there would be no need to give a separate ictus for them.
  • gregpgregp
    Posts: 632
    Just to clarify, this wasn't me; I was just attending the concert. The conductor did indeed start 'cold' after first beating several measures, getting the pitches from the pianist, and then starting with any intro. There were several other pieces on the program which including a piano or string introduction, in which of course they got their pitches from the introduction, but for the a capella pieces that's what he did. I can't recall ever seeing it done that way before.
  • When I've been so lucky as to have a really good group of voices, I sometimes reminded them of the style of the piece (tempo, etc.) before giving (requesting from the accompanist) the pitches, especially if there was little or no intro on the organ/piano or it was a cappella.

    Seriously, do we really need to get worked up about ensemble management? Every director/trainer has a unique relationship with his/her ensemble. This isn't a "by the book" kind of endeavor we're about here, is it?
  • melofluentmelofluent
    Posts: 4,160
    Greg, I think your experience demonstrated a conductor whose own deficiences became habitual, and then ritual for his choristers. Whether 'twas my middle or high schoolers or any of my many church choirs, all were honed to get their pitches from the "do" of the signature, and their onset from the prep beat gesture from me. This, I believe, is the standard still taught, because for conductors it's natural law. But idiocyncratic methodologies often "get the job done."
    But to put it into perspective, does anybody think Buchholz or TilsonThomas shows baton "down, left, right" to their orchestras playing Ludwig's FIFTH to establish the ictus of "bum bum, bum pahhhhhhhh.?"
    Thanked by 2ClergetKubisz BruceL
  • Indeed Melo, it is still the standard.
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 8,921
    Melo's description (prep beat) matches what they taught us in school a couple of years ago.
  • It depends on the training and reliability of your group, but I recently experienced "people getting their own pitches" where the voice which had the third of the chord decided it was major rather than minor.
    Thanked by 1Liam
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,606
    I've never been fond of the performance ideal in liturgy that pitches should be parthenogenic. Witnessed too many train wrecks to be persuaded it's even desirable.
    Thanked by 1CHGiffen
  • JeffreyQuick, WHERE on God's green earth would you EVER encounter something like that?!?
  • melofluentmelofluent
    Posts: 4,160
    Liam, that's so outrageous I laughed out loud, slow day in Boston?
    Look, I teach interval ear and sight training down to the third grade, and never have avoided any opportunity in front of any choir to emphasize the ability to recognize a major/minor third in harmony, descending or ascending melody. That's what we're supposed to do, right?
    Now, if you took that literally, sorry. From "do" the director can look at the section with the chordal third and lightly hum that puppy, no big deal. But yes, even in a church concert or liturgical situation I train my choirs to make a tonic pivot from one piece to another, especially if there's relative or other related criteria they can manage.
    And for other occasions, sure I have the organist "voice" the parts. But the rhythmic preparation of the conductor should have already been done mentally before that auditory moment.
    "Parthenogenic..." awesome. You just slipped ahead of Wm.F. Buckley on the two dollar word count chart.