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Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Young Conductor III - learning repertoire

Learning repertoire is another life-long (and fascinating) part of being a conductor.
For the beginning conductor it seems a daunting task, so first know that it's never-ending. Don't worry that you don't yet know enough, just get started.
First, of course, you'll learn the repertoire you sing. That doesn't mean it will be appropriate for the first ensembles you conduct, but it's an important building block in your knowledge. That said, take every opportunity you have to sing in more ensembles. As an undergraduate at the University of Washington when Rod Eichenberger led the choral program, I sang in almost every grad student's recital choir. In that way I was exposed to much more repertoire than I would have just singing in the UW Chorale. I also occasionally sang with other choirs, mostly to see a particular conductor work, but I also learned a huge amount of new repertoire.
I should also say that you need to start building your own score library. This is tough (financially) for a student and perhaps even for the young conductor starting her career, but will pay long-term dividends. In one of my methods classes we did a lit project writing down information about repertoire on file cards (yes, it'd be on computer today!). While this is helpful, later when you need to decide on one piece or another for your choir, you need to look at the specific score itself: is the tessitura too high for your tenors? range too low for your basses? how difficult is it to learn? So buying scores needs to be some sort of budgetary priority.
Go to concerts. If the symphony nearby is doing a choral/orchestral work you don't know--go! If another college choir comes to town on tour--go! If there's a good church choir doing a concert--go! Just go and listen and learn. Take notes in the program if you love particular pieces.
I was also lucky at the UW in that I started hanging around Rod's office listening to his discussions with the grad students. This was in the days when publishers gave away many more comp copies of scores than they can afford to today, and Rod had a couple huge stacks that hadn't been filed. Since I was hanging around, he told me if I'd file those scores for him I could keep any duplicates. This was a double win: I got the beginnings of a very good choral library (even things like some of the Bach motets), but would also look through each file when I put a piece away (they were filed alphabetically by composer). If I put away a piece by Hindemith, I'd look to see what else Hindemith had written. Consequently I got a great overview of the repertoire.
When I was in Europe on a choir tour with the UW Chorale I sought out music stores there. I still have Doblinger scores that I bought in Vienna and a few I bought in Paris. In Paris my French pronunciation clearly wasn't too good since I asked for "choeur" music and they brought me to the files of "cor" (horn) music! After that tour I stayed in Europe for another couple months and picked up music in other places as well.
Conferences are another great place to get to know repertoire: first, you'll hear lots of choirs singing great music you don't know. Keep notes of pieces you particularly like so you can acquire the scores later. Or if you hear a particular composer whose music you like, make a note to find out what else they wrote. And, of course, spend time in the exhibits, both of music stores and publishers. Between the many ACDA, MENC, IFCM, ACCC and other conferences I've attended, I've been exposed to a huge amount of repertoire. But you have to take notes or buy scores to remember what was worthwhile!
Workshops/Festivals are much the same. I was a student at the Oregon Bach Festival very early on (1972, the third year of the Festival, when it was still relatively small) and Helmuth Rilling told us if we'd give him our addresses, he'd pass them on to Günter Graulich, then the chief editor at Hänssler and after owner of Carus-Verlag. So I started getting their newsletters at that time, first in print, than later via email, and always was kept abreast of the huge catalogue that's been built over the years (and I still get their email newsletters today). Since I was particularly interested in early music, it was a great resource. Through Bob Scandrett I later got to know Graulich when he did a workshop at Western Washington University in Bellingham, along with Greg Smith and Louis Halsey. Bob then arranged a study tour of England in 1975 (follow the link from Bob's name to a series of blog posts about that trip) which introduced a huge number of composers and their music to me. This wasn't all new music--I heard Roger Norrington's Heinrich Schütz Choir rehearsing Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers which inspired me to learn the music and find a way to program it a year later.
Recordings are another obvious resource. With something like Naxos available today, you can have access to an amazing library of recordings online--many more than you'll ever be able to listen to. When you hear music of a composer you like, it can be a quick way to explore some of their other repertoire. And as a "dinosaur" of sorts, I still buy a fair number of CDs--old habits die hard!
As you begin to conduct your own choirs, you'll have reason to explore specific repertoires. When I taught at Mt. Holyoke I had reason to learn a lot of women's choral music. The wonderful library there provided a great resource, of course, but I also looked outside for other repertoire. During my time at PLU we started a men's chorus which I conducted, and that was the impetus for looking for male chorus repertoire. Since I haven't conducted a women's or men's chorus since then, I haven't kept up with the field, but whether you're looking for repertoire for the male changing voice, madrigal repertoire, choral/orchestra rep suitable for your church or HS choir, etc., you'll explore those areas in much more depth. A couple years ago I took on an Interim Choirmaster position at a big Episcopal Church in Dallas, where they sing Evensong every Sunday during the academic year. That gave me the excuse to learn a huge number of "Mags & Nuncs," along with Preces and Responses and much other Anglican repertoire I love. Whether it's one of the genres I've mentioned or vocal jazz, spirituals, gospel, African Freedom songs, or music from other cultures, there's always something new to discover, depending on the needs of your choirs.
Your colleagues will also be a fantastic resource once you become a conductor. You need to ask them what they consider the core repertoire for the middle school, or high school training choir that you're now conducting. Or to say, "What have you done recently that was a huge hit with your singers?" I've found my colleagues over the years to be incredibly generous. When I first became conductor of Pro Coro Canada in Edmonton, I traveled to Vancouver, B.C. and spent the day at Jon Washburn's house, looking through his vast library of music by Canadian composers and asking questions. I think you'll find similar generousity--just remember to pay it back to other conductors one day!.
If you have further ideas, please share them in comments!
While learning our vast repertoire is challenging (too vast to learn more than a fraction), it's one of the joys of being a conductor--there's always a new composer or piece to discover and then to share with your singers and audience! Don't be afraid of how much you have to learn, just begin.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Young Conductor II - what does a conductor need to know?

When I taught beginning conducting (which I did for 18 years at Pacific Lutheran University), I'd begin by asking the class to tell me what the conductor did. What did she need to know? What skills are necessary? What roles does the conductor play? What's important to become a very good conductor? This would always take coaxing and hints, because it was rare that the students had thought very much about that. They'd been in choirs, perhaps for many years, but looked at it from the other side. Now that they were taking this class (some because it was a requirement, some because they wanted to be music educators, perhaps even some because they wanted to do what I was doing!), they needed to start to see conducting from another angle.
I'd write the things they said on the white board and gradually they'd be grouped in different ways (they didn't come in this order, of course):
communication (can be gesture or verbal . . . or other non-verbal)
conducts (gesturally)
leads rehearsals
hears and corrects mistakes
music history
ear training
knows the voice
understands instruments
can create a good choral sound
knows style
performance practice (OK, my undergrads didn't usually think of this)
knows choral repertoire
is a leader
how to choose singers in an audition
keyboard skills
interpreter (knows how the music goes)
administrator (they rarely thought of this one either)
There would be variations on all these, but it always took coaxing and hints to get them to realize, for example, that a large part of the conductor's time is spent on organizing and administering many things connected with having a choir. Some, who may have been assistants or member of a choir council, might have thought of this, but even those students rarely thought about it--it just happened, didn't it?
As the list got more or less complete, then I'd start erasing things from the board: "It's incredibly important for you to be able to learn a score, to hear mistakes, and that's why you take theory, ear training, and piano, but we don't teach those things in this class." (I'd deal with them in later conducting classes, but not here)
"You'll learn certain things about music in music history. You'll also pick up ideas in your private lessons and in singing in your choir."
"You take voice not only to sing better, but to understand the voice and how it works, and how to teach your singers. You'll also learn about aspects of this in your choral methods class."
"You'll spend an amazing time organizing and administering your choir(s). Some of that you'll learn in your methods classes. . . but not all!"
"When you rehearse you use gesture, but also communicate verbally."
"Being a leader, being inspiring is incredibly important, but we don't have a class for that."
And gradually, everything was erased from the board except for gestural/manual conducting: "All these things are important for you as a conductor. Some you'll learn in the various parts of the curriculum (and now you know why you want to master those things!) and some you'll pick up along the way. Some are knowledge and some are skills. But in this class, we're really only concerned with learning the craft of gesture--how can you communicate with your ensemble what you want to happen in the music? What you'll learn here isn't nearly as hard as learning to play an instrument, for example. But it'll make your job as a conductor much easier if you can communicate gesturally to any ensemble--instrumental or vocal--with your gesture so your singers and players know what you want."
At this point I went over the syllabus (which I'll share part of below). But it's critical for the beginning conductor--and many who are already teaching or leading a church choir--to remember that the conductor has an amazing range of skills and knowledge to master. That's the point of today's post for the blog. And much of this takes years to master--there's no end point, which is one of the reasons I love this art. No matter how much I've done, there's still more to learn, there's great repertoire I don't know or haven't yet been able to conduct. For me, that's the reason it's continually fascinating. So, for the young conductor (literally beginning or beginning to establish your career), be aware of what you don't yet know, don't be overwhelmed by it, but enjoy the endless journey towards becoming a better and better conductor. You will never "arrive."
The basic conducting class was oriented only towards gesture. However, I always did an error detection exercise early on: they were given a simple chorale to learn for the next class--I then played it in three different versions (each played twice), and each with a more-difficult-to-hear mistake--best was if they identified the part which was wrong and the specifics--"you played C# instead of C-natural" after circling the alto note on one bar; next was to know what note was wrong, but not being able to identify the specific mistake; next to know something was wrong "around here."). This wasn't graded, but if they had real difficulty doing this (especially if they were planning a career in music education!), I took them aside and told them that they needed to work incredibly hard on ear training if they were to succeed--they would have a very difficult time as a conductor if they can't identify and correct mistakes.
Basic Conducting Syllabus:
This is the syllabus for basic conducting—not a syllabus tied to specific days, papers or exams—but  a list of the skills that we'll attempt to master.  They're given in the general order in which we'll approach them.  As you all now realize, there is much more to conducting than gestural conducting technique, but that is the focus of this beginning class.
The development of a sound conducting technique means mastering skills—and as with any skill, this means practice.  Just as you can't go into your vocal or instrumental lesson having practiced only a few minutes before (you can do that, of course, you just won't accomplish very much!), you must practice regularly if you expect to improve your conducting skills.  Basic conducting skills are not too difficult, but you’ll find that you make the fastest progress with short, focused, and frequent practice sessions.
Each of the individual skills inter-relates with the others, so don't feel that you can stop practicing previous techniques as you add new ones.  As you add, for example, left hand cues, accents or new patterns, you must make sure that the foundations of posture, relaxation, and clarity are still secure.  Further, each skill needs to be practiced to the point of being automatic. It does you no good to be able to conduct a beat pattern if you have to muster all of your concentration just to keep your hand moving in the right direction!  Ultimately, technique must be automatic so that your conscious mind can concentrate on the music and the ensemble.
Taken as a whole, conducting is a complicated mix of many different elements and, whether or not you plan a career in conducting, can be a wonderful way to integrate different aspects of musicianship.
  • Good conducting posture
  • Learning to work with the non-linear nature of the body
  • Relaxed bounce—a stable bounce point, the bounce centered in the hand, finding a relaxed hand position
  • Introduction to conducting patterns—how and why patterns work
  • The 3 and 4 pattern—conducting with a "balanced" pattern—working to groove the beat so that you can concentrate on other things while maintaining the beat
  • Changing the size and speed of patterns, conducting crescendos and diminuendos
  • Work on left hand independence
  • The 2 pattern
  • Showing accents or subito fortes within the beat
  • Giving accents or cues with the left hand
  • Irregular patterns:  7/8, 5/8 etc.
  • Subdivided patterns:  "in 6," "in 8," etc.
  • Making ritards and accelerandos
  • Preparatory beats:  pieces starting on the beat
  • Preparatory beats:  pieces starting off the beat
  • Cut-offs
  • Fermatas
  • Putting it all together—learning to show what you want with your conducting technique
Remember, technique is just the means to a goal—that of making music.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Lovely interview with Grant Gershon

Grant Gershon of the LA Master Chorale gives a wonderful interview--well, part 1 of 2. I look forward to the second part!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Young Conductor I

Welcome back! I hope you all had a good break. It's time for a new series, this time thoughts on the preparation for the young conductor. This could mean an undergraduate planning on a career in music education, or it could mean a young conductor, teacher, or graduate student who's started his/her career. How does one develop the skills necessary to be a fine conductor? What will make the difference between just adequate skills (even good ones) and excellence? I'm speaking of those things outside your classes/curriculum--what can you do to be the best you can be?
We'll start with your passion for the art of choral music. If you don't love choral music it's unlikely you'll spend the time necessary to achieve all of which you're capable. But . . .  you're not likely to be reading this if you aren't in love with what we do!
I hope so, anyway. I've been at this a long time, but I still love "talking shop" -- I'll happily spend hours talking about almost any aspect of choral music. So that's your starting place: your passion and love for this art.