Advice for Better Conducting and Rehearsing
by Noah Horn, ACDA-Michigan Co-Representiative for College & University R&R
The following advice comes from the instruction of many students whom I have taught at Wayne State University and Western Michigan University since 2014, including M.M. choral conducting students and undergraduate assistant conductors for various ensembles. I share these ideas with the greater ACDA community in hopes that some little item will spark a thought which leads towards better conducting and rehearsing. These ideas summarize many of my direct interactions with conducting students based on observations of their work, and those students represent “you” indicated here.
Make Music Whenever Possible
Your singers have gathered into a room for one central reason—to sing! Make music whenever possible and talk sparingly. The walls of the room should ring with music during the vast majority of the rehearsal. All other uses of time—giving verbal instructions, taking singers’ questions, making announcements, et cetera—should add up to much less than half of the total rehearsal time, which means that you want to minimize those items to create more time for music itself. Save your non-music time for important verbal discussions, such as when you talk about meaningful interpretations of the text. Find ways to keep the rehearsal moving as efficiently as possible and give instructions tersely and meaningfully.
Studying a Score? Use Your Voice and the Piano
When you prepare to lead a choir in a new piece, avoid the temptation to listen to your favorite recording and conduct along with the score. Instead head to the piano (or take out your tuning fork if you lack a keyboard) and speak the text in rhythm, sing the vocal lines, and play as many parts as you can, even if only one note at a time. You will embody the piece more by doing this than by listening to someone else perform it for you, and you will find that you know it much better after continued study. Let your own musicality guide your interpretation of the piece, and use recordings mainly to discover certain possibilities that you may not have thought of, with the score as the best reference for final decisions.
Conduct from Deep Within Yourself
Before you bring your hands up to begin conducting, allow yourself to reflect on how you want the music to sound. Avoid simply mimicking basic entrance cues that textbooks and beginning conducting teachers have described. Imagine yourself as a singer creating the exact sound that you hope to hear, with all of the wonderful breath support and warmth of tone that you can conjure up. Your mechanics should fall subservient to the demands of the music that guides your ear. A gifted conductor can create a far more beautiful sound even though she happens to break the pattern occasionally than a musically-lacking conductor might achieve with a beat pattern straight out of a textbook. Ensure a deep connection with the music by conducting it from memory.
Teach Music Effectively and Efficiently
Aim to teach music quickly and effectively while still requiring singers to use their musicianship skills. Set the foundation of rhythm in place by giving it primacy amongst all other elements, and asking singers to scrupulously observe the rhythmic notation. Avoid teaching by rote (call and response), and instead have singers sight-read the rhythm at a good tempo—slow enough to get right the first time, but fast enough to not waste time. Next, isolate difficult rhythms, possibly using rote if needed. Then add pitches, stopping to hold notes before and after difficult leaps. If the singers do not know the language, hold off on the text until rhythms and pitches have coalesced. Every piece uses a slightly different blend of these techniques, and experience will teach you to refine your methods. Avoid having singers sitting around—instead have all singers tackle the difficult rhythm in the bass line, the tricky leap in the alto line, and so forth. It keeps their focus steady and also improves their overall musicianship.
Lead from the Piano
You can improve rehearsal efficiency by leading from the keyboard during the initial stages of learning a piece. The piano’s percussive hammers will establish a rhythmic tableau for singers, and you can alleviate difficult leaps by playing them prominently just as the singers need to find them. Having studied the score, you know the pitfalls best and can provide advance help for them as they appear. During the first stages of learning a piece, few singers will look up enough to require a conductor. If you have not done this before, try leading your warmups from the keyboard first before diving into repertoire. Even if you find yourself in luck by having a great accompanist, you can still make singular progress on a piece if you follow this method and have acquired the keyboard skills to do so.
Learn from the Best
Attend rehearsals of top musical organizations near you. These might include a prominent symphony orchestra, an opera company, an excellent church choir, or a wind ensemble. Study their rehearsal process and learn from their ability to achieve excellence. They share a common goal with you of offering beautiful music to the general public, and even if they have access to resources which you do not, they can inspire you to reach greater heights musically and administratively. Observe other conductors whenever you can. Use these opportunities as a chance to find new ways to overcome your own obstacles and reach artistic excellence.