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
Why Technique Matters
If church music is, at its core, about glorifying God, then why concern oneself with learning technique or conducting "properly"? Isn't it the Spirit that ultimately carries the message, whether we have conducting background or not? Won't the Spirit make up for our lack? Furthermore, how will anyone know whether we're conducting well or not? And lastly, is anyone even watching the conducting, anyway?
As far as the latter two points, once they see that you truly are communicating something, and communicating it in a compelling way, they will take heed. Furthermore, even if we're talking about very basic conducting skills, there is a lot more to doing the basics well than people realize. Properly moving your arm through the patterns printed in the back of the hymnbook is actually astonishingly complex. Who knew? I certainly didn't when I first began formal conducting study. It is wise to not only learn the basics, but to learn them thoroughly, and learn them well. Otherwise, we are stuck with painful and difficult rewiring when we later discover we have years and years of bad habits to unravel. How much easier it is to learn a method correctly in the first place, when the slate is clean and fresh!
As to the former points, we do believe that the efforts of the sincere in heart are consecrated and magnified, no matter their background, and that, yes, the Spirit will speak to those who have ears to hear. So why all this fuss about honing our skills? Do we strive for excellence just for excellence's sake? No. Every single person's sincere effort and offering to the Lord are precious, and the only reason we care about improving or doing something to the best of our ability is because of the One we are doing it for. Spencer W. Kimball stated it beautifully, and we would be wise to adopt his words as a guiding principle in all that we do, both musically and otherwise: "We must recognize that excellence and quality are a reflection of how we feel about ourselves and about life and about God" ("The Gospel Vision of the Arts,"Ensign, July 1977).
"Excellence"is very subjective, and could be the topic of much debate, but I like President Kimball's definition very much – our own individual attempts at excellence, whatever that is, person by person, are a reflection of our love for the Savior and our desire to serve and laud Him. I love Him, therefore I will offer my best to Him. Whether offered by the Kings of the Orient or the little drummer boy who has naught but his heart to give is immaterial.
The following excerpt may be additionally instructive on the spiritual merits of music study and striving to present sacred music at as high a level of quality as possible (quoting Joseph Young, Brigham Young's brother, who, like Brigham, knew Joseph Smith very well):
"Joseph Smith organized the first choir in the Church and was a constant attendant at their singing schools. He recommended the Saints cultivate as high a state of perfection in their musical harmonies as the standard of the faith that he had restored, which was superior to sectarian religion. He told them that the refinement of singing would depend on the attainment of the Holy Spirit, and that their talents combined with the Holy Spirit's inspirations 'will bring compositions of tunes that have their origin with the sacred choirs that sing...in the presence of God and the Lamb' and that 'when the music performed here is acceptable to their spirits, they then co-operate with the choirs in our Earthly courts.'"
Then, though it is unclear when viewing the facsimile of the actual document, Joseph Young apparently quotes the Prophet directly:
"When this subject is studied and sought after by the singers of the Saints, with their whole hearts, their songs and anthems, and their minstrelsy, will soften into celestial melody, melt the hearts of the Saints and draw them together, as the magnet needle is drawn to the loadstone. When these graces and refinements and all the kindred attractions are obtained that characterized the ancient Zion of Enoch, then the Zion of the last days will become beautiful, she will be hailed by the Saints from the four winds, who 'will gather to Zion with songs of everlasting joy.' Then Zion will be free, and to God and the Lamb will be the glory, to Saints the boundless joy."(Quoted from Joseph Young's 1878 pamphlet, "History of the Organization of the Seventies.")
One last point on the matter of the pursuit of excellence as we hone our conducting skills (or strive to perfect anything): There are times and seasons of our lives when we can or are able to give more or less, according to our other responsibilities and obligations. Sometimes when we say "no"to one thing, it's because we're saying "yes"to something else. We do not need to feel badly about that, either. We simply can only do what we can do. What we can offer will vary according to our seasons in life. But, because of how we feel about our Savior, we will always offer Him the greatest "excellence" we are currently capable of.