Category Archives: Conducting

Techniques in conducting and leadership of an ensemble.

KEEPING IT TOGETHER – The Importance of the Conductor

baton-1Whenever a group of singers or players performs together, no matter if they are soloists, choir, chamber group, orchestra or any combination thereof, it is essential that someone lead or conduct the group.  With a small group, this may entail no more than a subtle visual cue by the first violinist, or the lead player in a rock band or jazz combo, occurring at a few key moments such as the opening attack or a final cutoff.  In Baroque ensembles (which generally aren’t exceptionally large), the keyboardist may conduct the group from the keyboard.  A similar situation often happens with church choirs.  But for most larger groups, especially of a non-professional level, someone will be conducting the entire piece.

For choirs, the person who conducts often holds the title of choir director, and one is tempted to picture them under the cliché of film director, sitting in a director’s chair with a megaphone and shouting “Work with me, people, work with me!” or “Action!” or “Cut!” or standing in a corner with a performer discussing motivation.

Actually, the more appropriate cliché here (as it is so frequently parodied in popular cartoons) would be the long-haired orchestra conductor performing histrionics with his baton a la Toscanini.

So what does a conductor really do?

  • Rehearsal – The conductor facilitates learning and rehearsing music, discussing dynamics (loud and soft), tempo (speed), articulations, and the general matters of interpreting a piece artistically.  He or she will also inform the group of certain particularly challenging passages where special signals will come into play, such as beating “in one” rather than in the pattern of the meter signature, or how a particular transition from one tempo to another will be conducted.
  • Performance – The good conductor performs some version of those fabled histrionics with expression as well as precision, since performance is not just about getting it right (although that is a prerequisite!), but also about making the artistic statement, indeed conveying to the performers in the visceral sense each expressive nuance throughout a piece.  The ensemble members are obliged to follow the conductor and serve that interpretation.

Light Travels Faster Than Sound.  There are two basic approaches to ensuring an ensemble staying together in performance:  by listening or by sight.

  1. Listening is the frequent method for small vocal groups of no more than, say, 6 or 8 voices; or for jazz or pop instrumental combos, especially since it is easier to hear wind instruments or amplified guitars or keyboards than unmiked voices.  Yet even in these small-group situations, more often than not at least some visual cueing is in play.
  2. Sight or visual coordination is perhaps the more reliable method, especially for larger groups such as large choral groups or orchestras, and certainly in those special scenarios where smaller groups are placed off-stage, or across a large room from other groups.

Our natural tendency is to try and stay together by sound, but we know that sound travels much more slowly (1,100 feet/second) than light (186,000 miles/second), and while this difference is negligible at a small distance of perhaps 10 feet or less, it becomes more and more of an issue as that distance grows to 30, 40 or 50 feet and more.  And so the conductor’s role becomes crucial, and it behooves the performers to rely on sight rather than sound.

Seeing the Conductor.  Some performances are done from memory, while in others, score and/or parts are used.  Performing from memory has the advantage of allowing the performers to give undivided attention to the conductor, especially in non-staged performances.  For some highly accomplished choral groups, this is standard procedure, though not always.

Most choirs, including some very highly regarded ensembles, perform at least some of their repertoire using music, and this is the usual procedure for oratorio and cantata performances, as it is for church and synagogue choirs.

Looking in Two Places at Once.  So the question for the choral singer becomes: “How do I watch both my music and the conductor at the same time?”  This is not as difficult as it sounds.  We hold our music high enough so we can look at the score and still perceive the conductor peripherally.  Ideally, we get to know the music well enough to find places where we can get out of the music and watch the conductor directly.  During the rehearsal process, we also note and mark clearly the places where it is particularly important to pay attention to the baton, such as a ritardando or accelerando, fermata or to accommodate a soloist.

Checking In With Your Eyes.  As many conductors will tell you, there is nothing more  frightening from the podium as seeing members of the group with their eyes buried in the music.  Make a point of checking in frequently with the conductor using direct eye contact.

Practicality.  That said, the pragmatic conductor will be accommodating to the group’s need to use music, and realize that beating a clear and large pattern is more likely to be perceived peripherally by the group looking at the music in performance.  Be sure to insist that they hold the music high so they can catch you in their view.  In the happy instances where the repertoire is familiar, there can be more insistence on getting out of the music and giving fuller attention to the podium.

In a future post, we’ll have more discussion about the basic language of the conductor’s hand motions.        Join Email List

ENERGY IN PERFORMANCE – Engaging Your Audience

Photo of candle flameHave you ever gone to a concert – any kind of concert – and felt completely “underwhelmed” by the performers even though they were performing competently, doing everything right as far as the music itself was concerned?  What was it that struck you as less than engaging about the performance?

I’ll wager it was a lack of commitment to the audience – a lapse of energy – that your were sensing.  It could stem from a few different things, such as:

  • Inexperience – Unless you’re at least somewhat experienced in the art of performing, you might have an insufficient insight as to how much you might have to do in order to have it “read” properly from the audience.  You may think you’re overdoing it, when in fact it could prove to be not nearly enough.
  • Tentative grasp of the material – Without the confidence that comes with full mastery and internalization of what you’re performing (be it music, a play, a comedic bit, etc.), your delivery might come off as tenuous and uncertain.
  • Stage anxiety – Sometimes nervousness can actually work in a performer’s favor, but just as often it can serve to quell the best aspects of delivery.
  • Fatigue or illness – Here again, nerves might prove beneficial in compensating for otherwise low energy.  Failing that, experience should tell the performer when that extra effort will be needed to make up for when we are tired or sick.
  • Lack of enthusiasm (“I’ve done this so many times….”) – This may be the most challenging barrier of all to giving the audience a scintillating performance.  If you ever acted in high school or college theatre where the production ran for more than 1 or 2 nights, you might recall that by the 3rd night, it was tough to summon the same kind of commitment onstage.  Now try and imagine yourself (as I often have) as a professional having to go on night after night for weeks or months in an ongoing Broadway production!

Regardless of the reason(s), a lack of full and complete commitment (aka “phoning it in”) will be all too apparent to the audience – as a lackluster performance, one with no “sparkle.”  Imagine whether Bruce Springsteen would be as successful as he has been without his fabled stage energy!

The fact is – whether you are singing or playing in a solo role or in an ensemble, whether popular, classical or ethnic music, whether it’s a concert or a sacred ceremony, or even a speech – energy and vitality in performance is absolutely key to engaging your audience.

Sometimes the energy lapse is limited to specific aspects such as diction, or facial expression, or musical line.   But even just one part of the performance that doesn’t quite sizzle can make all the difference between an “okay” performance and a truly exciting one.  And quite often having that sizzle can more than make up for other shortcomings.  An audience is far more likely to forgive an innocent mistake in notes or the occasional crack in the voice than they are to accept an overall tentative performance.

High Energy Doesn’t Mean LOUD or FAST.  While volume and speed can sometimes serve to convey a sense of engagement and immediacy, we can’t always sing everything loud and fast.  And yet the energy has to come from somewhere.

A classic example of this sort of challenge is in singing a very slow piece.  This often means having to sing long held notes.  You may feel it’s so slow, it’s like swimming in molasses.  The all-too-typical fix is simply to speed up the tempo.  But even this won’t make up for all of the energy deficiency, so why not deal with the problem head-on?

Listen to a good recording of Bach’s famous “Air for the G String,” or Handel’s equally celebrated “Largo” from Serse [Xerxes], two classic examples of very slow pieces which would lose their very identities if they were taken even just a little faster.  As you listen, try and notice how the initial very long notes are given life and energy, how they are made to “bloom” as they lead seamlessly into what follows.

No Rest for the Musical.  What you might notice is a feeling of crescendo without an actual crescendo, along with a sense of urgency without an actual speeding up.  These add up to a feeling of heading toward a destination.  This is the secret to singing or playing with a proper sense of “line,” of giving it shape and contour.  Although we are listening for it in those long-held notes, it must ideally be present in every note – long, short or in-between, and even through the rests!

Quiet Urgency.  This sense of constant energy is especially important when singing softly.  In fact a good rule of thumb is to increase your energy as you get softer.  Think of that urgency, that near-crescendo, and of diction, especially consonants (always important, but especially in those quiet moments).  Spit them out!

Learn to Gage How to Engage.  Energy does not mean OVER THE TOP, nor does it necessitate a lapse of dignity or good taste.  But it often does mean going farther than you as the performer might think is necessary or appropriate – exaggerating diction, facial attitude, dynamic changes, etc.  Let your conductor or other reliable advisor watch and listen from the house during rehearsals to gage what does and doesn’t work.

Put On a Happy Face (Or At Least An Engaged One).  If you’ve watched truly top-notch classical performers, they may not be putting on the smiley faces as they play or sing.  But they truly look engaged.  Solo and chamber players, and even orchestral players move and sway with the phrases.  And it’s a good bet they’re not faking this.  A solo singer communicates the song or aria on his/her face.  Choral singers should likewise be able to convey the mood and context of what they are singing facially.

In short, really get into your performing, and show the audience that you are enjoying it, even if it isn’t necessarily happy material.  If the music is sad, revel in that sadness and gloom, or whatever the mood and emotion might be.

If you want to engage the audience, be engaged.  But whatever you do, don’t allow yourself to commit the cardinal sin of performing – boredom!     Join Email List