I have written that there are only two rules for singing in a choir: 1. Always sing your best and 2. Do as you are told. And Rule 1 is more important than Rule 2.
It recently occurred to me that I know four rules of choral conducting. I can’t say that any one is more important than another, so I will present each in the order in which I learned it, and credit the teacher who got it through my thick skull–
Rule 1: It’s always your fault. I learned this from Paul Head in my junior year choral methods class in 1997. When something goes wrong in a rehearsal or a choir is not doing what I expected, I assume it’s because I failed somewhere. Often it’s a matter of a thing I have to do or stop doing, but sometimes it’s a matter of the ensemble not working hard enough, and that’s my fault, too. (Have I asked them to focus and given them something worthy of their attention?) It’s always my fault. It’s a burden to feel it–sometimes it would be so much more convenient to blame the ensemble!– but a relief, too, because it means there’s always something I can do to help.
Rule 2: How to Handle a Choir is to love them. Simply love them. Merely love them. Love them. Love them. This came from James Jordan, who, all witting, unleashed my inner hippie. The more I do this work, the more I know it’s true. Conductors at any level of any kind of ensemble have to see the humanity of their singers, connect to it, care for it. The love has to be real; it has to be sincere. If they don’t fill me with joy and break my heart and then fill me with joy again, I have not earned the right to lead them.
Rule 3: Listen and breathe. Andrew Megill says, “I only know two things about conducting: listen and breathe.” First of all, this statement, coming from him, is patently, demonstrably, objectively untrue. He, like the other teachers mentioned here, knows everything anyone could possibly need to know about conducting and vastly more. He is one of the best conductors I know of. But two things about it are true: First, yes, “listen and breathe” is an excellent place to start–sort of like saying, “I only know two things about singing: breathing and resonance.” I mean… well, yes… but those are two enormous things! Second, the kind of humility it takes for a conductor as gifted and hardworking as Dr. Megill to state with honest conviction that this is “all he knows,” as though it’s just a little thing, is a model for behavior and philosophy alike.
Rule 4: It’s all about the music. This surprisingly non-obvious wisdom came from wind ensemble conductor Jeffrey Renshaw, who is the most thoughtful “band guy” I’ve ever met. It’s easy for conductors to get wrapped up in logistics and procedures and skills–the doing of conducting: “look, I’m a conductor who conducts, and I’m conducting!” But of course none of that matters unless it serves the music. After all, the music is the thing that got us all in that room to begin with. And from this lesson I also learned something about being a conducting teacher: we have to talk about conducting, to clean up arm waving and posture and baton grip, etc.. These things are important and worthwhile, but we must bear in mind they are merely means to an end.
Nope, none of these lessons was about giving cues or cut-offs, or choosing a beat pattern, or repertoire selection, or rehearsal procedures, or any of the things are what people see conductors spending all our time doing. These rules address the real work of conducting, invisible to the ensemble and the audience. But here you go, internet! Now everyone knows!