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Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Young Conductor VII - gaining experience 2

Last time I recommended that the young conductor (even while still an undergraduate) gain experience through conducting a church choir. For the conductor who is a bit more advanced (already teaching, for example, or working in a major church position), working with a community choir or similar ensemble can be a valuable addition. The first year of teaching is most likely all any young conductor wants to do! It's an extraordinarily steep learning curve as one begins learning how to teach, how to manage behavior, how to deal with parents and administrators, organize concerts . . . well you know the drill! But at some point the conductor may wish to continue growing through conducting repertoire that s/he cannot do in their school position. At that point you might consider working with an outside choir (it could be adult, but also a children's or youth choir).
 
I mentioned last time that I got early experience with a church choir when I was 20 (my junior year in college). When I was 23 I started a community chamber choir, then the next year a group called the Bach Ensemble (with both singers and instrumentalists), which performed a Bach cantata the first Sunday of every month. At the end of that year I combined both ensembles for a performance of Bach's Mass in B Minor and that summer we incorporated and applied for non-profit status.
 
Working with any such group (a pre-existing ensemble or one you form yourself) will give you great experience: as I mentioned with the last post, the success or failure of every rehearsal and concert is up to you; you get experience with more (and different) repertoire; you may work with singers of a different ages than the ones you work with at school; and most importantly, with such a group you have to attract and keep the singers interested in working with you and the ensemble (I've always loved Brock McElheran's statement in his book Conducting Technique for Beginners and Professionals: "It's no use learning long lists of baroque ornaments if no one wants to play them under you."
 
Some of my fellow students also started groups at this time, but they almost always were made up of their friends at school (I sang in many of them). However, the groups rarely lasted. I always felt that when the conductor asked someone to sing, the conductor owed the singer, not the other way around. So if there was a schedule or other conflict there was little sense of loyalty to the ensemble. So when I started my first chamber choir, I quite deliberately did not ask any of my friends to sing. If they decided to audition, that was fine--they were indicating their interest in singing in the choir.
 
I'll say more next time about things to think about and where to find resources in starting a choir (I've started two and both organizations are still alive and thriving), but I'll end with this. When you advertise the formation of your group, you need to let people know what you're going to do, what repertoire . . . what makes you special. Think of it from the singer's perspective: why would I be attracted to this choir? why should I be willing to give up my time to sing in it?
 
Here's the actual flyer that advertised my first choir. I wanted to give a sense of the repertoire we'd do and the nature of the group. Until next time!
 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Young Conductor VI - gaining experience

In an earlier post I mentioned getting experience as a conductor. This is one of the big challenges for a young conductor and I’m a believer in making your own opportunities.
 
The first and best option for most young conductors (even undergraduates) is to find a position as church choir conductor (I've known other students who took on the children's or youth choir at a church as well). My own first position was in a small Lutheran church near Green Lake in Seattle when I was 20 years old. It was not a fantastic choir, but quite adequate, and I learned so much from my two years there. Everything that succeeded or failed was on me: I had to choose repertoire, coordinate with the pastor and organist, plan and run rehearsals, recruit singers, occasionally worked with the children, and had to have an anthem ready every Sunday. Of course, some things worked better than others (a nice way of saying that some rehearsals didn’t go well or I made poor repertoire choices—usually underestimating how difficult a particular anthem would be). But the experience was phenomenal, the learning curve was steep, and I improved rapidly. I also did a few extra concerts, some with friends of mine from the University helping out, including my first performance of a Bach cantata with instruments.
 
As for the church, they got someone who, while inexperienced, did have training and some skills, and was dedicated to doing the best job I could to help the choir make a significant contribution to the worship service. There will always be smaller churches who don't have a trained conductor and you can do a great service to those churches at the same time you gain experience.
 
Check with your college/university conductor and organ teacher as they will often get information about church openings. Look online, talk with older students who already have a church job. But do whatever you can to get your own choir. You’ll be able to put all those things you’ve been learning into actual practice. Even if (as I sometimes did) you have to occasionally sing the tenor part while conducting on Sunday morning, you’ll learn an amazing amount!
 
As much as you learn in a conducting class, there’s nothing like have a choir where you’re totally responsible to become a better conductor!
 
After two years at the Lutheran Church, I got the position of choir director at the large Methodist Church next to the University of Washington. This was a bigger church, better music program (although the choir was aging), and the organ professor at the UW was the organist at the church (Rod Eichenberger was one of my predecessors in this job). I continued to learn, could occasionally hire some of my fellow instrumental students to do some works with a few instruments or a small string group, and this church became my “home” for the next 8 years, until I was 30. With an office and a decent choir room, I also used it as rehearsal space (and sometimes concert space) for the other groups I would start, taught voice lessons there, etc. It was a great place with wonderful people.
 
I mentioned teaching private voice. This was also something I began quite early (probably when I was 19 or 20). A local HS director hired music students as voice teachers for his young students and I spent time traveling up to his HS once a week after school and teaching beginning students (I can’t remember now how I made that connection, but likely through ACDA). This is a fabulous way to learn about working with the voice, dealing with common vocal problems, and learning how to get beginners to sing better. As always, if you have to teach something it forces you to learn much more about what you do, how you do it, and how to explain it to another. I did the same thing later with my own former HS conductor, teaching at a nearby private school who rented out space for several of us to teach after school (the HS wouldn’t allow non-employees of the district to teach on the property). I then began my own studio as well.
 
In the next post I’ll write about starting your own independent ensemble, something with which I have a fair amount of experience. But know that getting experience is how you turn your education into a set of skills that take you from a student to a real (and better) conductor.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Young Conductor V - the conductor and the piano

One of the critical areas for a young conductor--and this applies to both the undergraduate planning for a career in music education and the graduate conducting  student with a fair amount of experience already—is to develop and then improve rehearsal skills.
 
I’ve written before about rehearsal, here and here, and even more on my own blog (which can be searched by topic), but today I’ll look at the use of a keyboard instrument in rehearsal.
 
There’s the issue of whether you have a rehearsal accompanist (and how skilled that accompanist is) or, if you don’t, the level of your own keyboard skills. But the question today, no matter whether you have or are your own accompanist, is how do you use the keyboard most effectively in rehearsal? Having excellent keyboard skills (or having an expert accompanist) can be a temptation as well as an aid—a temptation to play too much or too often.
 
In the beginning conducting book by Eric Ericson and two of his colleagues, Eric writes a chapter on rehearsing and compares the use of the piano in the rehearsal of a cappella music with helping a baby to learn to walk: first you give lots of support; then as the baby becomes more confident you use less and less support; and finally take away your hands and let the baby walk on its own.
 
I often see young conductors continue to play or let the accompanist play when it's no longer necessary. The basic rule should be to take away the keyboard as quickly as possible. When teaching or observing young conductors I often have to remind them: take the piano away! There are several reasons for this. One is exactly as in Ericson's example: use only the minimal amount of support so the choir becomes independent. But there is an equally important reason--when the piano is playing you simply can't hear as much of what the choir is doing. You as the conductor need to know . . . does the choir really know it? Can they find the pitches for the next section on their own? Is that chord really in tune? The sound of the piano can blur what's happening and your ability to hear it.
 
If the choir doesn't need the piano to sing the correct notes, but I'm worried about them staying in tune--so the choir doesn't begin to hear, feel (muscle memory), and learn the piece either flat or sharp--I want the piano to do the bare minimum to help the choir stay at the correct pitch, meaning using a bass line alone or perhaps a series of pedal notes that establish the correct pitch. Additionally, if I'm striving for "just" intonation and purer thirds (see my earlier intonation series for more information) I want to avoid playing the piano's tempered thirds, so will play roots or fifths.
 
I mentioned a cappella singing above, but even with accompanied music (whether with piano, organ or orchestra), it's valuable to take the piano away and let the choir sing alone. Not only can you hear them better, but if they're secure without the accompaniment it'll be ever so much easier when singing with the piano or orchestra. You can play the interludes, but drop out whenever the choir comes in.
 
Another thing for me if I use an accompanist--I don't want the piano between me and the choir. I will set up with the choir in an arc with me in the center of the arc (relatively). The the piano (a grand--this can't work easily with an upright) is to my right and slightly behind me. It's to my right (not left) so that the accompanist can easily see my right hand. It's behind me and further to the right because I don't want the bulk of the piano and its sound coming directly in front of me and more directly than the sound of the choir. It also allows me to move closer to the choir freely as well--either to hear/encourage a particular section or to temporarily get further away from the sound of the piano. But it's most important so the sound of the piano doesn't dominate over the sound of the choir.
 
And here are more observations from Eric Ericson's practice from an earlier post that's part of the intonation series:
 
First, Eric was a superb pianist with a marvelous, light and "vocal" touch. He almost always played with the una corda ("soft") pedal down and created a transparent, non-percussive sound. Too often I hear either conductors or accompanists pound notes in a way which invites harsh attacks and sound. Never from Eric or his accompanists.
 
He almost never simply played along with the choir, doubling what they did. Here's what was typical:
  • sometimes without the choir singing, he'd simply play (normally from memory) the music (Bach's Der Geisthilft, for example, demonstrating all important parts), saying, "I think it might go like this," giving a very complete idea of rhythm, phrasing, and shape -- the piano can demonstrate beautifully--with the right player!
  • as mentioned above, he would often play a pedal (usually in the treble, above the soprano, but also bass lines) to help keep pitch (but without implying tempered intonation)--often "rocking" an octave back and forth to keep the sound going
  • in very slow-moving music, he might improvise a melody above the choir in shorter notes, so the choir could hear and feel the pulse
  • if the music was harmonically complicated, he would play (as in the first example) something for the choir, but almost never exactly what the choir sang--but a reduction of the harmonic content and shifts so the choir could hear it more easily
  • he would also help the choir hear the harmony when it was complicated by playing while they were singing below and above  the choir (I remember that in Debussy, for example), but never in the choir's pitch area
  • and, of course, much of the time the choir sang a cappella -- he played only when it was necessary to help stay in tune, or to help with one of the musical issues listed above
The piano is a notably "unvocal" instrument and my comments above about Eric's beautiful and non-percussive approach to the instrument is incredibly imporant. So often I've heard a conductor or accompanist give pitches to the choir with a hard, loud, and percussive sound . . . and then the conductor wonders why the choir doesn't sing beautifully! How you or your accompanist plays is incredibly important in creating a beautiful sound or a poor one.
 
The keyboard in rehearsal is an incredibly helpful tool, but like all tools, has its place. Make sure you find ways to use it (and even more importantly, remember when not to use it!) that help the choir, but neither work against the sound you want nor become a crutch for the choir that isn't necessary.
 
Please add your thoughts and suggestions in the comments!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Young Conductor IV - becoming a better musician

If you remember my second post in this series, I listed all sorts of things that a conductor must gain in terms of skills and knowledge. For the young conductor (or the experienced one, for that matter), many of the limits to your achievements as a conductor will be your own personal limitations as a musician. Your ability to hear what's happening in the music, to hear mistakes, to understand the structure of the music in terms of harmony and form--all these are a huge part of building your musicianship and of your ultimate success as a conductor.
 
As a college/university student, this means taking advantage of courses in music theory and ear training, but it neither begins nor ends there.
 
What happens before you get to college has a huge impact of course: if you studied piano or another instrument early on; were in choirs, orchestras, or bands; if your parents took you to concerts; if you studied voice; if you were part of an outstanding HS program with great training and experience in a fine choir . . . all of this is a part of your becoming a better musician.
 
But much of this background most likely came before your decision to become a conductor. So, given where you are when you begin college, take your own personal musicianship as far as you can.
 
As you begin your conducting career, this learning doesn't stop (note how that's an underlying premise of this whole series--becoming a better musician/conductor is a life-long task). You're no longer in classes (although you'll almost certainly attend conferences and workshops, and work on further degrees in conducting) but need to keep exploring and learning.
 
My own education after my Bachelor's degree was largely through the groups I started and conducted. While I'll talk more about finding opportunities to conduct later, the work I did with the Seattle Pro Musica ensembles--first a chamber choir, the 2nd year the Bach Ensemble (with which I did a Bach cantata once a month), and a chamber orchestra the last 3 years of my seven with SPM--preparing this repertoire gave me huge opportunities to improve my musicianship. At that time there were few Bach cantatas recorded so with many of them I needed to learn them from the score alone, figure out everything about how the music sounded, tempi, dynamics, etc. This work--and with the SPM groups I conducted 71 different programs in 7 years--was huge in increasing my level of musicianship. I've often said that the work I did with these ensembles was my graduate education. No matter what opportunities you have, use them to increase the level of your musicianship.
 
Later, when I became interested in the work of Eric Ericson and his choirs, studying and then preparing and performing many contemporary works pushed my musicianship in an entirely different way. Being willing to try to understand and then conduct much of this music was another part of my post-graduate education.
 
Besides improving musicianship in terms of your ear, understanding of harmony, form, etc. there is also the task of becoming a better interpreter. Again, some of this training comes from watching the conductors you work with (or others you hear live or on recordings) and seeing how they interpret the works you sing with them. But much will come from listening to and studying the work of a myriad of performers. How do great singers shape a song? Whether listening to a great Lieder singer interpret Schubert or Frank Sinatra sing a pop standard, there's a huge amount to learn about phrasing, rubato, how to shape text, and how to "sell" the song. What can you learn from a great instrumentalist playing a sonata or concerto? What about chamber music? How does a chamber group communicate? How do they play with great ensemble? And we don't only learn from classical musicians: how about great jazz artists? Musical artists of all kinds teach you an enormous amount.
 
In terms of understanding style--whether of a particular period such as the late Renaissance or of an individual composer, the same listening is crucial. To better understand how to interpret Debussy you need to have heard his piano works, orchestral works, chamber music, and songs. The same is true of understanding the work of almost any composer.
 
Listen (live performances or recorded), watch, listen.
 
How good a musician you become is largely up to you. It's in your hands . . . and ears.