Thursday, January 17, 2008

Thoughts on teaching Choral Conducting

I've been teaching various levels of conducting at the University level now since I began doctoral studies about seven years ago. Since then I have taught everything from the basic introduction courses to 400 level advanced courses in Choral Conducting. This semester I am teaching the Advanced Choral Conducting to a very small, but somewhat enthusiastic class of seven students.

I think I surprise a fair number of students, most of which have only taken the basics of conducting, and some of them under the extreme regime of the new professor who feels they should know everything about the Saito method of conducting. (Don't get me wrong, I am an avid believer of the Saito conducting method, and I also do a few lectures with Saito as a guide - but to do a full three months of it would be a bit tiresome, unless you were being taught by Saito himself I think). So the pressure to do everything technically perfectly, show every cue, keep the left hand from mirroring, and to not lip-sync while conducting is something that is fresh on most of their minds. Most intro courses are based on the principles of conducting large orchestras, and seldom incorporate anything to do with choirs. What's worse, in my opinion, is that few of these instructors require any of the these students to demonstrate MUSICALITY. It's all about "4 inches more this way ... 2 inches that way ... left hand moving 6 degrees that way ..."

So on the first class I look at them all in the eye and say. "You all know how to conduct now - you've proven this in your intro class, so, my goal this term is to get you to show emotion in your conducting - passion for the music - and understanding of the text, and relationship with the music - and how to convey that to a choir".

Ok, so sure - I do spend time fixing loose wrists and bouncy left hands, and make them do complicated hybrid metres, but 80% of their evaluation will be on HOW they transmit the musical elements in their conducting. Not just gesture, but facial expression - EYES - enjoyment, or in some cases, how to convey sadness, the ethos of a character, the passion of a sad lover. So, their first assignment? English madrigals. "Weep o mine eyes and cease not!" (no, not see snot ... cease not!). They will be required to show proper conducting patterns, cues, releases and all that sort of technical clearly, but above all - can they give a performance? Can they Evoke emotion? Is this too much for a 4th year music or Education major to do?

Have I mentioned that I love teaching?


Anonymous said...

If the Saito method is being taught without the primary focus being musical expression the problem is not with the method. Contact me at for more information. I expect to be in your city in late March. I can demonstrate how the Saito method enhances musical expression when I'm there.

From The Podium said...

I agree! And when I do lecture on Saito method in my intro class, I make sure the musical expression aspect is there. I wasn't implying that it isn't an expressive method - when taught properly, it certainly is! I'm just of the opinion that there is more than just this one way to teach conducting - especially "choral" conducting.

I would be very interested in seeing your presentation though, do let me know if you are offering a workshop of some kind while you are here.

Anonymous said...

Here's an entirely different philosophy -- empower the singers to express from the 'inside out,' so that they are affecting the conductor rather than the director affecting them. It's my belief that the singer can be much more effective AND affective if they use the same methods of authentic expression as the most skilled soloists.

When each singer is an expressive artist in their own right, the choral experience is much more powerful and poignant for singer, director, and audience.

To do this, the director actually remains neutral in their facial affect, allowing him or herself to be impacted in-the-moment by the singers.

For more information on this technique, check out my book (Choral CHARISMA: Singing with Expression) or my website (below).

All my best,


Tom Carter

Anonymous said...

I love that you actually point out that emotion is a big part of conducting. I am a music education major and I am doing a paper over conducting with emotion. Do you know of any good books I could check into? Or even better would you like to give me some quotes from you on this topic? I would love the help. my email is

liz garnett said...

This set of comments is wonderful demonstration of the dialectic between technique and expression. I generally find myself in these discussions taking whichever pole the person I'm talking to isn't propounding: if they're all over emotion, I get all purist over technique, if they're obsessing over the physicalities, I dig back into the music ;-)

Actually, I'm increasingly of the view that it's the ear that matters. If you're really hearing what your choir are doing, you can't help but clean up your gestures, both in terms of clarity and evocativeness.