Listening to the Conductor

I am appalled sometimes that choristers often do not listen to their conductors. I take that as a ‘choral singing 101,’ you just have to listen to your conductor. Alas, sometimes it is very difficult!

There was this time when I joined a choral clinic. It was from a Filipino choirmaster, and I cherished the opportunity to meet him (for the second time, actually). While it was not necessarily a clinic (as in technical materials), it discussed a topic very important to any choir: foundations in choir management. The choirmaster used the context of church choirs, and I found it valid for any situation.

To begin with, the choirmaster mentioned three basic rules for any conductor:

  1. Conductor is always right;
  2. If the conductor commits mistake, refer back to rule number 1;
  3. If the conductor commits mistake, and you are a chorister, keep your mouth shut.

Harsh? I don’t think so. It is a simplification on an already simple rule: listen to the conductor!

The flair of being a conductor. Here’s Bruce Bennett, laureate conductor of Houston Symphony. (Photo by Bruce Graf)

A conductor’s job is very hard. Let me mention some of the roles a conductor should hold:

  1. To lead the rehearsals;
  2. To lead the entire choir during performance. In essence, the conductor should articulate the choir to the audience, using his/her interpretation, and most importantly, his/her way to communicate his/her interpretation to the choir;
  3. Understand his/her choir strengths and weaknesses;
  4. Choosing pieces to perform. This is due to the fact that a conductor knows his/her choir best. The conductor knows what pieces are the best for his/her choir. Therefore, it is not the choristers’ task to determine what pieces to perform (note: of course all choristers have the right to suggest, but not force);
  5. To manage the choir organizationally;
  6. To manage the unity of the choir.

Tough, isn’t it? Therefore, it is peculiar that sometimes it is extremely difficult for choristers to listen and perform what the conductor wants or instructs. Suppose some singers of the altos commit mistake (say, a flat note). The conductor will stop the singing, and ask the altos to correct their mistakes. What usually happens is that the choristers will keep talking and talking, which will lead to another mistakes being committed.

I always believe that choir practices should never be complicated and difficult. It is more often straightforward than not. Understanding this should not be difficult, just listen to the conductor.

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