Lessons from In-and-Out Conducting Experiences

by Jessica Allen
ACDA-MI Student Representative (Graduate-Level)

This past summer I had the opportunity to teach a summer session at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp for the first time. For approximately two weeks in August I was responsible for a junior high select choir and two staff ensembles comprised of college-age counselors. The rehearsal time available with the staff choirs was especially limited. The larger ensemble of thirty singers alternated every other day with the select ensemble of sixteen in one-hour blocks.

All told, each ensemble rehearsed for approximately three hours before presenting a culminating showcase of music I introduced as well as music pulled from previous sessions. With these ensembles, I was faced with the challenge to make music immediately and efficiently on a condensed timeline without the luxury of time spent solely on social connection. Aside from recent clinic experiences with the Michigan School Vocal Music Association, this situation was new to me. To that point, my primary professional experience was with choirs I built relationships with over time. With every choir I have led, I have kicked off each rehearsal season with some kind of event to build interpersonal connections and had – by comparison – much more time and space to build good habits and draw out artistry. This “in-and-out” conducting experience taught me a number of lessons that can be applied to other abbreviated rehearsal situations.

  1. Research beforehand.
    Talk to everyone in charge and ask everything you can think of. Talk to someone who has filled the position before. If choosing repertoire, ask for past programs to gauge ability level and timing. The name of the game is flexibility, but aim to walk in as equipped as possible with what to expect.
  2. Come prepared with a tool kit of great ideas.
    You won’t be able to plan each rehearsal minute beforehand, but you can have a batch of ideas at the ready to pull out at any moment. With each piece, collect rehearsal strategies you know will work, list multiple images that will fast track the choir to your vision, and create plan B’s (e.g. what to do if the group is bouncing off the walls or what to do with the slump before lunch).
  3. Don’t talk!
    This is certainly a lesson for all of conducting life (and a phrase to tattoo and needlepoint wherever we need reminders), but it is especially important for the most limited rehearsal situations. Show everything. Speak with economy.
  4. Make a good first impression.
    More specifically, make the right first impression. Set the tone and lay down your expectations in the first few moments. Note that expectations don’t have to be authoritarian; it is just as possible to set the expectation that rehearsal will be productive work but feel like fun and games. Be true to your leadership style immediately, and bring them to the music right away.
  5. Keep them on their toes.
    With no time to lose, keep the ensemble awake. Make use of the rehearsal space by changing singer order and formation. Hop from key to key when leading warm-ups. Ask them to move to engage whole body singing and get quick results. Start with an activity that requires eye contact and quick reflexes to capture the attention of the entire ensemble. Read the room and vary the rehearsal pace when needed.
  6. Know when and what to let go.
    Squeeze all you can out of the time, but let go when necessary. In the very last moments, prioritize expression, text connection, and stage presence over technical elements that could not be polished. Be mindful of creating a memorable experience for the singers. If there will be a final performance, don’t forget to reserve some time for logistics regardless of how informal the concert will be.
  7. Laughter is one of the best ways to connect.
    It may not be possible to learn everyone’s name, but it is possible to make everyone in the room smile or laugh. Make a point to create a positive common experience each time you step in front of the group.

Reflecting on this list, these bullet points are in fact relevant for most every rehearsal situation, but “in-and-out” conducting experiences like the one I had at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp are both artistically rewarding and informative. A rehearsal room with singers we don’t know is a conducting laboratory in which we test our charisma, our foolproof rehearsal strategies, and whether we are truly showing the music with our gesture.