choral v. instrumental

This is another post in response to a question my conducting students had. They wanted to know the differences between choral and instrumental conducting. I explained in class that there is some controversy over this subject, and that there are lots of conductors who would disagree with me, but this is my experience:

There is no difference.

Good conducting is good conducting. Because you’re conducting the music, not the musicians.

That said, there are lots of different kinds of conducting based on more than just the content of the music, such as logistics, skill level, your familiarity with the ensemble, and how well they know the music. Conducting a stage performance from a pit is a completely different technique. Conducting recitative is a totally separate skill from conducting anything else. And, yes, there are some fundamental differences between singing and playing an instrument that suggest different needs from a conductor; although, those influence the rehearsal process more than how you actually conduct the music.

A singer usually has a score that lets them see other parts, so they can listen and count, and are less dependent on seeing every downbeat. A nice, clear pattern will be helpful when they’re just learning the music, but if they know it well, all they’ll need from you is a compelling intention. On the other hand, a singer’s instrument is made of muscle and cartilage, and is directly influenced by their autonomic nervous system. They are more dependent on your physical and mental stability because of the subconscious influence you have on their emotions that will influence how well they sing. Then again, if you work with them a long time, they can adjust to whatever chronic tension is in your shoulders or whatever, and not allow it to contaminate them.

An instrumentalist doesn’t have a full score to know what else is going on around their part, but with enough practice, they will learn what to listen for and become less dependent on your cues and downbeats. Given enough time, they won’t need any patterns from you, just reminders about the intensity and affect they are creating. Their instrument is not directly tied into their nervous system, so your stress will have less effect on their playing; but research still shows that the better they know you and the more they like you, the more closely they will follow your gesture.

Here’s a couple of very common for-instances:

You conduct a church choir. At Christmas you have a string quartet, who do one rehearsal with you, then play two services. Your choir likely doesn’t need anything from your gesture but a reminder to pour out their hearts. The string players will need every downbeat, and a pattern as clear as the finest crystal.

On the other hand, imagine you conduct a community orchestra. You’ve worked with them for months on a choral/orchestral work, while someone else is preparing the choir. Your orchestra knows the music well enough that they just need you to set the tempo, bring them in, and then keep reminding them when important things happen with abstract gestures and expressive eyebrows. The choir comes for their first rehearsal with you, all prepared and ready, but unfamiliar with you, your tempos, your interpretation. They will want clarity from you above all else. You had better cue every damn entrance, at the first rehearsal at least.

You see, it’s not a matter of whether the ensemble sings or plays. It’s a matter of how well they know the music, how well they know you, how much time you have to fit it all together, etc.

In this Basic Conducting class, I’m mostly teaching you to speak the common language of gestures that are universally understood by professional musicians. Most of you are already at the point where you “speak” the gestural language of conducting well enough that you could handle any situation like these two.

At the same time, I’m also trying to sandwich that technical information between two slices of art. Because, mostly, you’ll be working with ensembles of amateurs and students, who will need your clarity and your vision to show them how their part fits into the whole. And why it matters. Your gesture needs to be clear about tempo and dynamics, just like a sandwich has to have meat or cheese or lettuce or whatever. But your gesture can have so much more. It’s a conductor’s job is to discover what the “more” is in each piece of music, then put it in her gesture. (I’ll be spending more time in class talking about how to find that, as part of your requested deeper exploration of score prep.) But so far, I’ve mostly been trying to teach you the process by which your gesture becomes expressive, so you’ll be able to put anything in. Like, when you learn how bread is made, it becomes clear how to make different kinds of bread.

And, yeah, full disclosure: this art/technique/art sandwich is just one of the available treats in the broad buffet that is conducting. This is not all there is to it. Hence my twenty years of studying and practicing, and blogging, and working, and still learning all the time.

But, mostly, you conduct the music, not the musicians.

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