3.1.1 Technical Issues
This may sound obvious, but an instrumentalist sees our conducting gesture and then does something to make their instrument create a sound. For a singer, there’s no external object through which they make a sound: they are the instrument. With this in mind, when it comes to conducting singers, whatever we do will impact directly on them and their sound. Posture may be the most significant part of this connection. Our posture should reflect a singer’s good posture. You wouldn’t play a broken cello, so you shouldn’t sing with poor posture! Re-cap the very first Technique Chapter 1.1 and Chapter 3.1 to work on that strong conducting stance. Remember, it is easy to collapse or drop out of this posture accidentally when we’re feeling tired or feeling nervous. We must work hard to avoid this, as the singers’ posture is vital in helping them to maintain good vocal health. Our physicality has a direct impact on their vocal production.
As mentioned in Technique Chapter 1.3, conductors often use a baton to conduct an orchestra, and the same usually applies to large-scale choral-orchestral works. However, when conducting unaccompanied choirs, it’s almost universal that most conductors just use their hands. With this freedom from having to always hold a baton with one hand, you can think carefully about how you can use them in certain ways for expression and musical detail. For example, your finger-tips pinching together can be really useful for showing precisely where a hard consonant, like ‘T’ or ‘S’, is going to be placed. Turning your hands over so that your palms are facing the ceiling might be a useful way to hold and support a sustained, beautiful chord. Look at the difference between keeping your hands relaxed through a beat pattern and then adding in some tension and resistance. How will the sound of the music be affected if you keep your fingers long and ‘soft’ as if you’re going to stroke a kitten, or if you hold a tense, angular position like a claw? Spend some time exploring a variety of shapes and movements with your hands which you can call upon for different musical ideas.
We explored the connection of your breath with your arms in Technique Chapter 1.4 during some upbeat work. It’s worth revisiting this chapter as it is so important for singers. The breath we give before any entry for the choir is absolutely vital for good ensemble and quality of sound. The simplest way to describe it is to breathe as if you are going to sing the line yourself. (We can practise this by singing through each of the choral parts on the score and feeling how the breath works.) Make sure you breathe deeply, and your shoulders don’t rise up as you breathe in; it would be interesting to have a short singing lesson with a professional singer if you aren’t a singer yourself. Think about the quality of the breath you are giving: are you breathing in the manner of the phrase which is about to be sung? For example, should it be a long, slow breath or should it be a quick, ‘surprise’ intake of breath? A good way to practise your breathing for conducting is to try bringing in a choir with just an upbeat breath instead of using your arms. Even harder, try it with a piece of paper hiding your face from them, so they can only watch your upper body for the breath! When you use your arms again, try to feel that your arms are connected to your breath – that they simply magnify the quality of the breath, both in tempo and in character.
Bear in mind that in choral music, everyone can see the score, not just you. Although this won’t change too much in practice, there may be moments where you can show different information compared to an orchestral piece where the players only have their own part. For example, in this excerpt from Grieg’s Ave maris stella, in measures 3 and 4 there is a poco rit. and it is the end of the first verse of the piece. We might like a short fermata in measure 4 or we might like to make the crotchet rest at the end of measure 4 a little longer. In any case, as we can all see the score, if you add in a fermata or a complete break at the end of measure 4, we know that the next thing that’s going to be shown is the Tutti choral entry at the beginning of measure 5; therefore there’s no need to show every beat in measure 4. If the tenors and basses didn’t have the full score, they may have needed all of the beats through measures 3 and 4. Because they can clearly see what’s going on during their rests, we can alter the physical information we choose to give.
There are different schools of thought when it comes to the conductor mouthing the words to the piece.
Generally, if the music is homophonic, it can be a useful tool; you can demonstrate the shape of the vowel, or show how the vowel changes shape during a word, whilst showing where a consonant is placed. If the choir are all singing the same vowel shape, then the blend of the choral sound will be better. If a hard consonant, such as a ‘T’ or an ‘S’, is placed perfectly together by the choir at the end of a word, the diction will be very clear, and the choir will sound crisp and precise.
If you’re always mouthing the words and the piece is polyphonic, then you aren’t helping as they will be busy singing different words! Therefore, make sure that you are mouthing the words for a particular reason in polyphonic music. Example: I’m mouthing this passage for the Altos in this bar, as they will need to place their final consonant precisely together. Also, remember that if you’re always mouthing the words, you may distract the choir from something important you are showing with your hands.
If you decide to do this, then it is vitally important that you mouth the correct words at the right time, particularly if the choir have memorised their music and are relying on you for some helpful hints. Remember that the singers will naturally copy what they see; therefore, you must ensure you are showing the correct vowel shape.
As stated earlier, whatever you show as the conductor will have a direct connection and impact on your singers. With this in mind, let’s consider three examples of gestures that might support your singers whilst getting the character of the music across:
- A long fermata for the whole choir on a chord: Sustaining a note for a long period of time, particularly if it takes a singer to the extreme of their register, requires good breath control. Whatever dynamic the chord is, a good tip for the conductor is to keep one or both of your hands moving very slowly throughout the fermata. It gives a feeling that the sound is alive and needs to be kept spinning, rather than arriving at the fermata and singing a dead, flat pitch that just sits there, unsupported. Your slowly moving hands, as if they’re moving through treacle, act as a kind of support to the singers, as if you’re helping to carry them through the note. It should help the pitch stay in tune and not drop flat as it goes on.
- Loud and aggressive passage: One must consider the vocal health of your singers, particularly amateur singers who may not realise that they are producing their sound in a dangerous way. Try to avoid gestures like clenched fists, shoulders rising up and extreme tension in your body. Instead, try to find a way of getting the same drama from your singers whilst displaying a strong and supportive gesture. Be wary of accidentally encouraging singers to sing louder than lovely, or being on the verge of shouting.
- High, quiet and ethereal passages: In a passage of music like this, you might be inclined to conduct higher up and make very small gestures. In fact, it can be useful to keep your gestures centred around your waist area, to keep focussing the singers on the area of the body that is most important for breath control. If the singers are particularly nervous or tentative, you might conduct with gestures that are a little larger than the dynamics given on the page for extra confidence and encouragement. This won’t always be necessary for a passage of music like this but remember that it’s a tool in your box and it could come in useful at an initial rehearsal to aid confidence early.