more rules: preparation

I’m teaching a one-on-one conducting class this semester. My conducting teaching in the past has been with classes of music majors who are required to take the class and have generally standard musical preparation, but mixed degrees of interest in conducting. They form an ensemble so they can conduct each other. It’s a pretty streamlined process with lots of precedent to follow.

I’m teaching a students with only the most basic music theory skills, and some solid vocal training. He’s been singing in my choir for five semesters, so he knows my approach from the ensemble side. In deciding how to work with him in this unique set of circumstances, I’ve had to come up with some kind of codified approach that a true newbie can crawl into.

There are two parts to being a conductor: score prep (including musical analysis and historical research) and podium technique (including gesture and verbal communication). Before I began lessons with this student, I looked through my rules and realized they are all about interacting with the ensemble, and not about the skills you have to develop both musically and kinesthetically in order to be effective at those rules.

So I’m going to take a stab at rules that should govern conductor preparation.

Rule 1: Know everything that’s in the music. Every note and its relationship to every other note. Fragments, motives, anticedents and consequents, cadences, phrases, periods, sections, movements, textural relationships. Have an opinion about why those notes are there and what their relationship to each other and the text means. See if this doesn’t teach you something about the composer and her intentions. See if it doesn’t teach you something about yourself and what you want to see.

Rule 2: Your body should express what’s in the music — nothing more, nothing less. This means having enough proprioception to analyse where your weight is, how your hands are positioned, where unnecessary tension is gathering, etc. and also enough coordination and flexibility to ensure that what your body parts are doing is expressive of your (the composer’s) intentions. Also, don’t let your movement interfere with the singers’ bodies; don’t allow your tension to be communicated to them. Don’t accidentally lie to them by letting what comes out of you contradict what’s in your ear and your mind.

That’s all I’ve got so far. These are the things I’ve learned in conducting lessons, and I think they’ll be what I do with my student conductor this semester. We’ll see how it goes.

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