Need conducting help
  • I'm a student at a University I'll not name, but I come seeking advice because our conducting course is extremely underwhelming, and I need to learn much, much more than what I will here. I'm getting good experience directing a choir for one of our Masses on campus, but we do mostly only 4-part hymns and we aren't capable of much more. But of course I want/need to learn how to prepare higher level pieces (motets, chant, etc) for my future career.

    Does anyone know of any resources that might be good for helping me to learn how to conduct on my own?

    I have also considered reaching out to conductors somewhere in the Chicagoland area (either suburbs or downtown) and ask to study under them in a mentorship sort of situation over the summer. Does anyone know of good conductors or choral programs that I could approach, that would be willing to take on an apprentice?

    I am aware that the ACDA has a mentorship program, but I would like to stay in the Catholic sphere, so I will go to that if there's nothing else.

    Thank you for your help!
  • WGS
    Posts: 233
    Sign up for the 2020 Colloquium!
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  • You can learn tons by observing rehearsals of effective conductors.

    Kevin Allen

    Watch the video, it will convince you.

    [this was posted late at night, totally failed to state that he is where you are and you should talk with him!]
  • but I would like to stay in the Catholic sphere

    Don't. Not if your goal is excellence. Seek excellence, and bring it to the Catholic world.
  • One can scarcely learn more about the art of conducting an ensemble than observing great orchestral conductors at work. Videos of Celibidache and Karajan, in rehearsal, are illuminating examples of crafting a unified artistry across an entire ensemble. Celibidache was also an excellent choral clinician, seen in his work on Bruckner's Mass in F minor and Fauré's Requiem (both videos available on YouTube). As for Karajan, little needs to be said. The other plentifully-recorded conductor who is worth investigating is Robert Shaw, who developed a plethora of experience teaching intricate works to amateurs who eventually sound anything but.

    Once you have the musical fundamentals and artistry from observing orchestral conductors, what is left is to learn the voice in and out so that you may apply it to the choral world. Many choral conductors nowadays preach an individual-centric form of expression that invites each performer to find personal expression in the verbal text of whichever work is at hand. I believe this stems from the histrionic, hyper-subjective textual approach which many singers are taught in their solo experiences to the exclusion of almost everything else. This method is, in my view, inappropriate for liturgical music's very ethos, does not work on a practical level with polyphonic and Gregorian works, and is less productive at building a purely musical ensemble. (Another of Shaw's strengths - he was all about musical fundamentals and unifying those across an amateur ensemble) As orchestral musicians do not have a verbal text and often have no text with which to shape the music, they are forced to delve into musical structure itself and fundamentals like phrasing, tone, expressive intonation, hierarchy of voicing, dynamic contrast, and articulation that are equally applicable to the vocal realm and especially to the Church's treasury of music, both on a liturgical level and a purely musical one.

    By learning and singing this music as an independent musician (especially in polyphony where the singer is forced to become independent), you will gradually discover how to put the above ideas into practice in a choral context. This has the double advantage of melding the two schools of musicality and exposing yourself to more repertoire in an industry which requires a near-continuous stream of new pieces. (Unless, of course, you limit yourself to GR1974 and have the entire liturgy planned out for you in advance.) The only remaining step is applying your own personality and non-musical skills in leadership to the task, and that is something that requires experience and personal discovery more than anything else.

    I found Erich Leinsdorf's books (especially The Composer's Advocate), as well as biographies of and interviews with famous conductors (Klemperer and Murakami's recent book with Ozawa were my favourites) to be helpful reading that offered oft-ignored viewpoints. Playing polyphonic keyboard music (Bach, of course, but anything in that vein will work) and learning how to properly voice, balance, and articulate each individual line will be invaluable experience for doing the same (or the opposite, depending on how you look at it) with a multi-voice choir, especially (but not exclusively) in Renaissance polyphony.
  • Do you live in a metropolitan area?
    You could join the choir of a prominent Episcopal church or cathedral and learn from what would be excellent directorship.

    As WGS says - attend the 2020 colloquium for concentrated immersion in chant, polyphony, and other choral genres.

    Attend all the choral concerts you can and study the techniques of the directors and the sound (diction, intonation, dynamics, breathing, etc.) of their choirs.
    Talk to them about your aspirations.
    Join such a choir yourself.

    Get on youtube and listen to-study all the choral music you can.
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  • I never thought that I would have to disagree with Schonbergian, but I must. Orchestral and choral conducting are quite distinct disciplines. One will not learn from Karajan and colleagues how to direct Lassus, a Handel chorus, a Bach motet, a Parry anthem, chant, or any other choral genre. In fact, one will not learn from what he does to Mozart or Beethoven how to conduct either one of them (except how to make Mahler out of them and romantisise them). As for Shaw, great as he was, he would be a mentor only for someone who is looking to see all choral music through a romantic lens.

    There are a few who manage to straddle the two camps of choral vs orchestral music - such as Harnoncourt, McCreesh, Mariner, Saval, and others. But - Mutti's Ninth is not to be missed, nor Barenboim's Beethoven's choral fantasy - but such works are far from a church musician's fare.

    The way to learn choral conducting is from experience in choirs and a close study of their directors. Also, watch videos of great choirs - especially English cathedral and collegiate choirs.

    Voice lessons would also be a good thing to have under your belt; as would the study of vocal paedagogy.

    Put yourself under the wing of a really good church choral director.
    Hear every good choir that you can on videos or live - and carefully watch their directors and meet them.

    And, stay on this forum for a good immersion in church music and church music culture.
  • Richard MixRichard Mix
    Posts: 1,968
    Thanks for the Celibidache tip! (and check out the crossed eyes after 35') We sang Fauré (Pie Jesu-Introit-Sanctus-In paradisum) for a chorister's funeral this morning and it's still ringing in my mind. Bruno Walther, Harnoncourt & Haitinck might be added to the reading list (right now I'm enjoying Thielemann's My Life with Wagner) and of course we're assuming you already know Bertalot's books.

    One thing that bears repeating is the importance of being active as a performer of chamber, orchestral & vocal music at the highest level within reach. A big part of conducting is acquiring the faith that the mountain can move, and I notice my choir smiling at me when I've just come back from a gigs with John Poole, Kent Nagano or Ragnar Bohlin. You're lucky to be in Chicagoland.

    As sergeantedward says, better not ask what the Catholic sphere can do for your musicianship but rather the reverse!
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 10,197
    Do you have any schools in your area that teach conducting? Even some of the so-called junior colleges here have conducting courses. One thing I would be careful of, is boxing yourself into one narrow area of music written in one general era. I know someone who never studied music in a college but learned conducting at "sacred music" workshops and a Colloquium or two. She doesn't know standard conducting patterns, waves her arms in circles and thinks everything is influenced by Solesmes. One of her choir members told me, "I wish you could teach her a downbeat." I replied that she isn't my problem. Get a broad-based education and don't confine yourself to a musical niche. Don't be one of Swift's Houyhnhnms who are so rational and devoid of emotion they are irrational and nonsensical. Study Romantic music, too, since you need to know that, as well as other schools of music.

  • SalieriSalieri
    Posts: 2,520
    The ultimate goal in choral conducting (for me) is Boris Ord. The trick with conducting in churches is subtlety--particularly if you are in a situation where the choir is visible (like in choir stalls, or some modern churches)--you don't need huge, theatrical gestures. This can be learned by conducting from the organ: you'll find that you can convey a great deal with your eyebrows.

    The most important part of conducting is rehearsing: If you can run an effective rehearsal, then you're 90% there. But this is the hardest part. Flapping your arms to 'convey the music' is easy. Go to places with good choirs, whether Catholic or not, and introduce yourself to the choirmaster as a conducting student, and ask if you can sit in on a rehearsal or two to observe what they are doing. Even if you notice that they aren't managing a rehearsal well, you will learn from the via negativa. I learned (and am still learning--its a continual process) how to effectively run a rehearsal from both good examples and bad examples.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 10,197
    All that depends on choir size, location, and how far the choir is spread out. I have wondered if I can introduce a gesture for the soprano who never looks up from her music and cuts off a partial beat late. Maybe I could practice a hymnal toss toward her head instead of giving a standard cut off. An entertaining thought. Every situation is different and you can not know too much. Salieri is right. Go experience the best, the worst, and the in between. That knowledge will serve you well.
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  • Karajan was one of the least Romantic orchestral conductors out there, but I'll agree to disagree.

    What one will learn from them, moreso than just their personal interpretations, is how to apply the most core of musical fundamentals to ensemble singing at the highest level, through direct instructions rather than vague platitudes. If one can then apply that idea of thinking to the voice, one will achieve far better results than many choral conductors nowadays. And if one wishes to apply the current HIP dogmas to Shaw's or Karajan's methodology, one certainly can as well.

    I would wager the thought that the Gregorian and Renaissance repertoires are so singer-centric (as opposed to director-centric) that the best way to learn how to interpret and shape them is by singing them, rather than studying a schola director. The best that they can do is offer artistic guidance on what should ultimately be shaped directly by the confines and limitations of the human voice.

    If one develops a complete understanding of these concepts at a highest level, then simplifying them for an amateur choir becomes much easier than trying to do the reverse. Many choral conductors today fall into this trap of learning amateur pedagogy and not only having no idea what to do with a professional group, but being unable to further tailor their instruction to any other skill level or degree of experience.
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  • dad29
    Posts: 1,789
    individual-centric form of expression that invites each performer to find personal expression in the verbal text of whichever work is at hand. I believe this stems from the histrionic, hyper-subjective textual approach which many singers are taught in their solo experiences to the exclusion of almost everything else.

    Well, yes, but............recall that in his 1985 Vienna lecture, Ratzinger deliberately emphasized the word (Word), saying that music is 'the enfleshment' of the word.

    Your singers must understand the word/text--not so that they can personalize the music, but so the composer's realization of the particular text informs their choral singing.

    I've sung under Shaw--the Beethoven Solemnis. Did the same piece under Schermerhorn, whose interpretation was just a tad 'hotter.' Both worked very well.
  • ghmus7
    Posts: 1,176
    It will be all you need for awhile....and watch good conductors on youtube.
  • Richard MixRichard Mix
    Posts: 1,968
    I have wondered if I can introduce a gesture

    I finally decided it was unfair to the offender's neighbors to point to my elbow and raise my eyebrows, but then we're all pretty nice folk.
  • Greg -

    In the (otherwise good) book that you reference the author speaks of the difference between choral and instrumental directing as that in choral directing every syllable or word is beat. I would like to know where he got this absurd notion. The sure way to ruin a performance is to beat every word, syllable, note, and rhythm. Such directing is particularly disastrous in directing chant (Gregorian or Anglican), it will create, not the director's fondly imagined movement and clarity, but an expressionless blur with no momentum at all. Many times have I seen such ridiculous (as in comical) directing from even reputable directors, not to mention amateur ones.

    To be sure, choral and instrumental conducting are different techniques, though on occasion there are similarities. A good choir does not focus its performance on beats but on grammatical syntax and word phraseology. Choral singing is not (predominantly) beat driven. When the beat is prominent in choral work it is as an exceptional technique for a given affect or effect.

    The difference between beat and text driven singing can easily be illustrated by the difference between Lutheran and Anglican hymnody and choral works. Lutheran (or Germanic) music is highly beat driven and as a result is rather rough and expressionless, often even barbaric in its course through time. The Anglican approach is different in that the beat may or may not be elastic, there is much greater attention to expressive word and grammatical sense, and a much more gracious, expressive, and 'musical' result.

    One could go on about this, but this will suffice perhaps to excite further comment.
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 4,210
    Peter Phillips is a consummate early music director (of the Tallis Scholars, of course), and I've had the opportunity to be in one of his master classes (at UVa, with Zephyrus). I'm pretty sure a few videos of Phillips choral technique are available (I haven't looked).

    I've played & sung under Robert Shaw, and he was indeed of a romantic bent, although his Brahms German Requiem and the Stravinsky of Psalms were outstandingly led, giving me much insight as an undergraduate. As an adult, I found conducting studies with Margaret Hillis (founder and director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus) most illuminating (she was a stickler for intense score study!).

    I was also fortunate enough to sing in church choirs of Russell Paxton (UW-Madison) and Robert Simpson (Westminster Choir College), and gained valuable experience from both of them.

    These musical experiences (rather than simply observations, of which I've had many) are indelibly imprinted on me, along with numerous others.

    Try to make music & work with excellent choral conductors!
  • ...(Westminster Choir College)...
    We are very fortunate to have Robert Simpson in Houston. He is choirmaster and organist at Christ Church Cathedral, founder of the Houston Chorale, and is on the faculties of both UofH's Moores School of Music, and Rice's Shepherd School of Music.

    Studying at the UofH under Bob Simpson and Daryl Robinson would be incredibly rewarding for anyone entering the world of church music.

    Rice would be a good place, too, if the top tier organist Ken Cowan could play a recital without Ride of the Valkyries or some such on it - and requires of his students that they, too, learn such rubish. (NB.: it's rubbish only when played on the organ.)
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  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 4,210
    Oh, the Houston Robert Simpson is a different person!! The one I referred to passed away several years ago, after retiring to Atlanta from Princeton. Indeed, Robert in Houston must be outstanding, although I've never had the fortune to meet him.
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  • MJO, I hope that I am not mis-understanding your point when you count the Lutheran chorale and choral works by Bach, Brahms, and many others as "expressionless" and "often even barbaric", unless you're referring solely to interpretation. I find distinctly different, but equally powerful, modes of expression in both schools - and the concluding amen of Brahms's Op. 109/3 is the furthest thing imaginable from barbaric.
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  • Schonbergian -

    Your 'hope' is not at all ill-founded. My reference was solely to the hymn-chorale singing in many, very many, Lutheran churches. Such rough song is typical of Lutherans, at least in this country, and, I suspect, would be widespread in Germany as well (though I have no experience of the church music situation there). I think that this is probably an in-grained praxis which has its roots in the very isometric, beat-driven, rhythms of early Lutheranism (the isometric version of Ein feste Burg as it appears in Lutheran hymnals would be a well-known case in point). Fear not, you are quite right about Bach, Brahms, Schubert, et al.

    Let me add that if I had to choose betwixt the rhythmically brutal singing of many Lutheran congregations and the mumble singing which is common in Catholic churches I would choose the former - at least it's alive!

    And, about your singing in Toronto - I attended the national convention of the RCCO at Charlottesville, Prince Edward Island back in 2002 or so. One evening we had a presentation at an evangelical church at which the hymn singing was, as you say, 'formidable'. Brutally so. Definitely beat driven, relentless, visceral. One is almost tempted to call it tuned shouting.
  • Yes. Even in Toronto, the hymn-singing from Anglican congregations is formidable.

    I once sang at a cradle-to-grave Anglican parish's Evensong with an organist who must have had fifteen registrations lined up per chant and possessed immense sensitivity to expressing each line of text. Though probably too much for a lot of congregational singing, I miss that experience quite deeply when I hear the square, monotone accompaniments to most hymnody and psalmody in most parishes.
  • GambaGamba
    Posts: 235
    Houston Robert Simpson just won a Grammy for the complete Duruflé choral works.
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  • ghmus7
    Posts: 1,176
    MJO: You quote:
    "In the (otherwise good) book that you reference the author speaks of the difference between choral and instrumental directing as that in choral directing every syllable or word is beat. I would like to know where he got this absurd notion."

    You are correct, and I probably just dismissed this when I read the book. However, I think there is so much mystification about conducting. The mechanics are quite simple. The musicianship to be a good conductor is something else. Say %90 musicianship and %10 waving of the arms.
  • jcr
    Posts: 67
    Conducting, like singing, is often a controversial topic. Discussions break down over definitions, the greatness or its opposite in some favorite conductor or another, "choral technique" vs. "instrumental technique".

    I highly recommend learning a good solid baton technique based on the best orchestral technique. There are several good books on conducting that cover patterns and the like. The great problem is really what to do with those things learned in this study. It is unfortunate that there are quite a few choral "conductors" who do try to beat out too many syllables. I was greatly amused by seeing one of them try to teach a group to conduct the Halleluia from Messiah. Such nonsense has become pretty rare by now, but there is a great deal of faking it going on still.

    My advice is to learn a sound basic technique and then concentrate on how to use it to make music with full sensitivity to the text and to the building of your choir. A conductor is not a "time beater" and needs a full tool kit when it comes to rehearsal procedures, vocal training techniques, and leadership principles. I have known people with poor to fair baton technique, but who had good ears, good musicianship, and leadership skills who got quite good results. Good technical baton skill is great and can save a lot of time, but without these other qualities the conductor is greatly handicapped.
  • A conductor is not a "time beater"...
    Amen to that!
    This is definitively true in choral directing.
    As for the baton - when I see a baton in the hands of a choirmaster I prepare myself for a beat driven or dull performance with little or no nuance.

    And, even in great orchestral performances I have observed the likes of Bernstein, Mutti, and numerous others often let the orchestra play itself and 'direct' nuance only by vague hand-arm or body movement from which a 'beat' is not in evidence.
    To be sure, there remains a beat, but it isn't 'beaten' - it is merely one factor (and may at times be a subsidiary factor) in the musical flow.
    Some prominent orchestral conductors even direct entire works without a baton.
    Their results are without exception superior as music, where music and pure poetry are perfectly united.
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  • In the (otherwise good) book that you reference the author speaks of the difference between choral and instrumental directing as that in choral directing every syllable or word is beat. I would like to know where he got this absurd notion.
    -- M. Jackson Osborn

    McElheran says he gets this idea of "choral conducting" as "beating every note" from "many writers," whom he doesn't identify, but he associates it with second rate a capella music ranging from barbershop quartets to "lushed up spirituals."

    It's clear that he disagrees with the notion that choral conductors should beat every note. He calls the tendency to distinguish between "choral" and "instrumental" conducting "lamentable", says that the great masters didn't make a big distinction between vocal and instrumental music, and points out two "grave limitations" of choirs conducted by beating every note: they can't perform with instrumentalists, who need regular beat patterns; and they can't perform polyphony. He concludes by remarking that "all the best choirs he has heard were conducted by directors using 'orchestral technique'" (with the exception of unbarred chants).

    See pp. 10-12 in the Google Books preview.
  • jcr
    Posts: 67
    There is a rather complex approach to musical rhythm that can be expressed simply enough, but that can require a good deal of thought to understand the implications of the notion. The idea is that strong beats are points of rest and that the motion and energy in music is to be found in the unaccented beats or parts of beats. I first heard this expressed this way when a choral conductor was explaining what Shaw did and how his concept of "rhythmic drive" was developed. I later ran across a master's thesis dealing with the same idea. This concept gives the developing conductor something to ponder when applying the conducting technique to the actual craft of music-making. How does the conductor express the accumulation and dissemination of energy in a musical phrase and what will that mean to the singing of a group of singers to whom he expresses it?
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  • ...barbershop quartets to "lushed up spirituals."
    Such genres are hardly benchmarks or exemplars for the directing of serious choral music, are they?
    Why would anyone think that they were or propose that they were?
    Familiarity with the direction of serious music, with the English choral tradition, with outstanding American choirs and their directors seems to be lacking.
  • dad29
    Posts: 1,789
    when I see a baton in the hands of a choirmaster I prepare myself for a beat driven or dull performance with little or no nuance.

    Like Margaret Hillis? Margaret Hawkins?

    Generalizations don't befit you, MJO
  • Yet I agree with his opinion whole-heartedly. Orchestras will not put up with something like that - most choirs wouldn't know better.
  • Definitely study with a choral director.

    An orchestral conductor is a totally different beast, as she is dealing with multiple sources of sound, each with their own idiosyncrasies and group loyalties.

    It's like herding cats.
  • Hardest choral conducting class or lessons I've ever had were taught by a professor who was a crossover to choral from orchestral conducting.

    Aside from her personal idiosyncrasies as a teacher (which added Hitchcockian levels of suspense to your student experience), she expected choral conducting that was sensitive to the formidable demands and expectations of instrumentalists playing along with your choir. After all, it's (on my view) a very desirable situation to have to conduct both, simultaneously!

    I've always enjoyed this video of my esteemed predecessor & beloved son of my current parish conducting at the Oregon Bach Festival (he holds a Master's Degree in Orchestral Conducting, which he teaches at University out there on the West Coast). I think he shows choir and orchestra equally what they need, and gives the thing such life:

    Aaron conducts Bach
  • GambaGamba
    Posts: 235

    If I am not mistaken, Margaret Hillis and Margaret Hawkins were both brilliant leaders of the choral-orchestral rep, rather than "choirmasters" in the sense of "churchperson in cassock and surplice who directs ecclesiastical choirs in unaccompanied polyphony and sometimes stuff with organ".

    I was always taught that (generally speaking) if it's just singers, use your hands, if it's just an orchestra, use a stick, if it's choral/orchestra, use the stick, as it's what the orchestra is used to seeing.

    I am not aware of either of them conducting, say, Byrd Masses or Howells canticles with a baton.
  • Chaswjd
    Posts: 124
    While conducting is important, what is more important is the rehearsal. There is only so much a conductor is going to be able to do on the spur of the moment during a performance. You could have the best stick technique in the world, but if you haven’t communicated during rehearsals, it is not going to do you much good.

    The key I would think is knowing what you are going to expect from your choir and then communicating that to the choir effectively. It is also in knowing what your choir needs from you. For example, is there a tricky entrance that a particular section will need a clear cue from you to execute?

    Although it’s on the instrumental side, there was a recording of the late Claudio Abbado conducting the Brandenburg Concertos with a carefully selected group. For one of the concertos, he did not even conduct them. He just let them go and perform the piece. He had so clearly communicated what he wanted to his performers and knew they were good enough to not need anything more from him during performance, that he did not even need to conduct. There’s a good argument that that was perfect conducting technique.
  • CCoozeCCooze
    Posts: 756
    Some local symphonies have conducting scholarships.
    It might be worth looking into.
    Thanked by 1CHGiffen
  • jcr
    Posts: 67
    Expression of the musical and textual content of the work at hand may require a variety of things from a conductor. Knowing what you want, how far you can expect to get with the forces at hand and what they will need from you to approach it, and having the variety and breadth of technique, musicianship, leadership skill, and communication skill to get it across are all part of the job and these are demanding requirements.

    I have seen conductors who have a great verbal knack, others who speak little, but demonstrate a phrase here and there to good effect, still others who have a magical way with gesture, and on and on. The skills are many, but the conductor has to call upon personal resources from personality, technical skill, etc. to put it together. Discovering and employing these resources is the quest we are all on while we conduct singers and instrumentalists. There should be no division between choral and instrumental conductors. Roger Wagner could go on a bit of a tirade about this particular issue. The task is to solve the requirements of the music.
  • dad29
    Posts: 1,789
    Gamba, I sang under Hawkins for 20 years or so. She used a stick for ALL the music, whether chor/symph or choral. Like, e.g., Friede auf Erde or the Bruckner motets.

    And in her conducting class--which I took--she clearly preferred that the students use a stick.

    Only sang for Hillis once (the B-9th) and she used a stick--so I cannot testify to her technique on 'choral only' music.

    Anyhow....this 'stick/hands' thing is merely trend, or fashion. Any competent conductor knows how to get real music from a chorus (or church choir) using a stick OR hands.
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  • Depends on what you want to learn. I had an amazing teacher, who was able to turn sows ears into silk purses.

    I should have notes around somewhere. PM me if you are interested.

    Her only downfall was Latin pronunciation. I shoved a Liber Usualis under her nose, but she remained unmoved. In all other things, she did wonderful work.
  • Jeffrey Quick
    Posts: 1,565
    I went here this past summer:
    I presume they'll have one this year.
    Brad's a good guy, though he doesn't have a lot of interest in religious music. He deals some with tone production and Game/human engineering of ensembles, but it's mostly communicating. If there's an overarching principle it's that "less is more" in terms of beat patterns. As an exercise, I tried conducting a passage without can be done, though maybe not the most effective way. There were I think 10 of us, maybe 3 church choir people, the rest public school directors.