Friday, April 24, 2009

Conducting Course Ideas

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've been teaching various levels of conducting now for about ten years at the University of Alberta, both introductory classes and specialized classes in Choral Conducting and Pedagogy.

Over the years, I have experimented with all sorts of course outlines, written assignments, and conducting repertoire ideas, especially for the Advanced Choral Conducting and Pedagogy class.

First I'll deal with repertoire ideas. I try as best as I can to go through as many style periods as I can, however, with only time for about four conducting tests, and really only enough time to see each individual student twice before each test, I have to be selective here. The format I've used recently is Classical, German Romantic, English Renaissance, and Modern. And yes, in that order. We are thinking progressive difficulty here, and I feel starting with Renaissance is asking too much of the students, as it is, in my opinion, often as difficult to conduct as much of the modern repertoire out there. Classical will focus on a review conducting technique, basic patterns, releases, cues, and formal structure; German Romantic to develop a sense of rubato musicality, and artistic expression; Renaissance to deal with polyphonic structures, individual voice lines, word painting, conducting the music beyond the imaginary bar lines (i.e. breaking free of beat patterns); and modern mainly to deal with mixed metres, and hybrid metres.

The choice of the repertoire will depend much on the size and makeup of the class. For example, this semester I had eighteen students, sixteen sopranos and altos and two basses. Hardly a balanced choir! Luckily a few of my alto women were quite comfortable singing tenor, so in the end, it worked out OK, but in past years I've had as few as eight students, and as many as twenty-one. However, the twentieth century example - the opening movement of Britten's "Rejoice in the Lamb" will always be my go to test piece!

As far as written work for the course is concerned, I've found in recent years that many of the written assignments I've given are assignments that the students have already done in previous conducting courses. All of the students have taken one conducting course, and many of them as many as three other conducting courses before they get to my choral conducting class. So to make them sit in and critique a rehearsal or develop a single concert program again seemed silly. Likewise an intensive score analysis project will have also been asked of the majority of them already.

This year, I completely redesigned my outline, and I'm happy to share it with you all here, as I felt it was quite successful, and the feedback from the students was also supportive of the same (I've cut down the verbose nature of the outline for the purposes of re-posting it here):

Unit I – The Choral Warm-up and Basic Review of Conducting Gestures

Class discussion and written assignment:
A selection of readings along with a written assignment will be given on the topic of choral warm-ups.

Conducting Assignment
Repertoire of the Classical Era will be studied – focusing on the review of basic conducting gestures.

Unit II (25%) – Creative Programming and Conducting Early Music

Class discussion and written assignment:
A selection of readings along with a written assignment will be given on the topic of programming.

Conducting Assignment
German Romantic Repertoire of the will be studied – focusing musical phrasing, rubato and expressive gestures.


Unit III (25%) – The Choral Rehearsal and Conducting Chant and Recitative, and the Renaissance Madrigal

Class discussion and written assignment:
A selection of readings along with a written assignment will be given on the topic of the choral rehearsal.

Conducting Assignment
Conducting different types of chant, recitative and the Renaissance madrigal will be the focus of our conducting assignment this unit.

Unit IV (25%) – Choir Management and Conducting 20th century music

Class discussion and written assignment:
A selection of readings along with a written assignment will be given on the topic of choir management – a guest speaker will also be welcomed to the class.

Conducting Assignment
Repertoire of the 20th century will be introduced – focusing on changing metres and challenging tonal languages.
The basic idea of the written assignments were (again, shortened only here to prevent the blog post from going too long):

Warm-up assignment: Give examples of four contrasting warm-up exercises. Two of a physical nature, and two of a vocal nature. Students agreed to share their assignments with the rest of the class, giving each student a "book" of warm-ups to take with them.

Creative Programming Assignment - Students were to seek out existing programs, either from our library of choral concert at the University, or only internet, and critque the programming choices of the artistic director. Comment on the sequence of pieces, composers, thematic structure and other observations as they see fit. Students were encouraged to listen to the concert, if the recording was available, or even GO to a live concert to get the overall impression of the concert, concentrating on programming choices. As we are a University that supports graduate choral conducting students, an opportunity to see a grad student recital was encouraged, as their programs tended to be quite diverse - and allowed for multiple works to be seen in a programming context.

Choral Rehearsal Assignment - this was a two part assignment, both practical and written. Students had to prepare a work to conduct for the class (the Renaissance madrigal was their repertoire choice slated for this unit, so it was used as their piece - they had freedom of choice from a list I created for them). A rehearsal "plan" covering 10 weeks of rehearsals was to be laid out, with very detailed plans for the first 3 weeks of rehearsals. Then the practical assignment was, naturally, to "rehearse" the class for one 10 minute rehearsal each.

Choir Management Assignment - (I have to thank my business manager (aka - Mrs. Brough for this one). Students were to prepare a three part assignment. First part was to prepare a budget for a concert of Britten's "Rejoice in the Lamb" (their conducting assignment for this unit), including all details of venue, soloists, organists ... flowers ... you name it. They had to be "real costs". For example, talk to organists in the city and ask what they would charge - or call venues to find booking costs. The second part was to create a marketing plan, within the constraints of their budget, and the third part was to write a press release for the concert. This was a GREAT assignment. There was so much great creativity from the students on this one. I also had great support from the community, who gladly gave the students the information they needed to to this assignment.

In my next post, I address the challenges of grading students in a course - in particular the grades given for practical assignments. The stress the students feel conducting a short excerpt of music for "do or die" marks, and how I went about reassuring them that their marks wouldn't be solely based on one and a half minutes of conducting!

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