Basic Conducting Technique
- What it Means to Be a Choir Director
- Why Technique Matters
- Proper Arm and Hand Position
- Proper Stand Position
- Basic Patterns
- Preparatory Beats
- Phrasing and Articulation
What it Means to Be a Choir Director
"Are conductors really necessary since everyone's looking at and following the same printed music?" I was asked this once over dinner while dining with some friends from church. After taking a moment to regain composure from nearly choking, I attempted to explain the mind-bogglingly complex skills required of the conductor, and his or her vital role in not only keeping an ensemble together, but the myriad of other details of which he or she is the final interpreter and model, not to mention the varying degrees of musical literacy, and countless possible interpretations, represented by the ensemble members. That was before I'd gone back to school for conducting – before even I realized that in order to really, truly conduct, I'd be committing no fewer hours of daily practice to my art than a concert pianist. People usually respond incredulously when I tell them this. "But don't you just wave your arm around?" they ask.
Suppose you are about to view some sort of presentation that is to be given in a language other than your own, thus requiring the assistance of an interpreter. Suppose you have some background in the language, and can therefore appreciate its beauty, but, as it is not your primary tongue, having the interpreter on hand will still be helpful. As the presentation begins, the interpreter tells you, "They have begun talking." Yes, I can see that, you think to yourself, leaning forward eagerly to discover what is being said. A few moments pass without any further explanation, so you look expentantly at the interpreter, who replies, "They're talking still." Uhhh … Yes. I see. But what are they saying? The interpreter chimes in again a moment later: "They're continuing to talk." Huh? Yes, of course, but can you please tell me WHAT they are saying? "The talking is still going on," the interpreter states, trying to be helpful. And on and on the discourse goes, until the presenters have completed their message and sit down. Would you call this a satisfactory experience? You got the gist of what was going on, after all.
Perhaps it's a silly analogy, but it's an accurate one if you truly are just waving your arm when up in front of an ensemble. And maybe that's what it feels like sometimes. Attention, everyone. I am establishing the beat by waving my arm. Here it is, see? 1-2-3-4. Wonderful. Okay, a full minute has passed, and here it is still … 1-2-3-4. Guess what? Another minute has passed, and it's still the same … 1-2-3-4. I know you can feel where the beat is perfectly well on your own by simply tapping your foot, but just so you know, the beat is up here for your gazing pleasure, as well. Have you ever felt that way? And if you haven't – if you feel that your conducting is actually very nuanced and expressive – have you ever watched video footage of yourself? Maybe it is very expressive, but try watching yourself (on video, not just in the mirror), just to see what you observe. Many conductors are astonished to discover how little they're actually showing, because they feel so emotive.
Directing a choir is about establishing a beat and keeping an ensemble together, but it is about so much more than that, too. Besides the countless numbers of both ensemble logistics and musical expressions that must be conveyed, it is, at least in the world of church music, the wonderful and profoundly important stewardship of engaging an entire congregation in glorifying the Savior. On any given Sunday, there might be a particular message that someone is supposed to hear, and a certain piece the choir will present will have a special potency to carry that message into that individual's heart. What you have to offer is not merely nice, atmospheric "filler," some nice padding to round out the talks. You are in a position to help facilitate a vital form of worship that connects people to their Maker and allows them to powerfully feel the Spirit.