Conductors: we see them in front of a chorus or orchestra, furiously waving their hands one moment, and gently moving them the next. And while we may have absolutely no idea what they’re doing or have any insight into their non-verbal vocabulary of waves, arcs and points, the performers who they’re communicating with certainly do. Or at least, they’d better.
According to Katherine Bartol, whose choirs have performed at the WWII Memorial Dedication ceremonies in Washington D.C., the 400th Anniversary of Jamestown with President George W. Bush in attendance, and sang the Star Spangled banner for NBA games, here are the three traits that are shared by truly great conductors who elevate performers and performances to a professional level:
1. Strong Analytical Ability
Conductors aren’t women and men who don formal attire and show up for performances (and yes, some of them do admit to pretending that they cast spells when they wave the baton around!). The bulk of their work takes place behind the scenes, rooted in meticulously analyzing each work down to its most granular details.
Katherine Bartol, an original contributing author for Pennsylvania State University’s Partnership for Music Teacher Excellence, states that the hallmark of a great conductor is a total commitment to preparation, which is driven by superior analytical ability about the work and the performers. The conductor’s ability to memorize the score will enable him or her to establish full eye contact and more communicative gesturing. Knowing where the singers may struggle or possibly forget an important element is crucial for the conductor to lead the ensemble through the challenging parts. Superior conductors are quickly able to hear any type of mistakes from the singers and will correct them in an efficient and positive manner, which is usually followed by positive compliments on the correction. This, in turn, reinforces the singers’ ability to remember where the mistake was located so it is not repeated.
2. Outstanding Communication Skills
Conductors need to be outstanding communicators who can connect with each performer. At the same time, they need to clearly establish and enforce standards and principles — which can be much easier said than done. The discussion between an orchestra and the conductor needs to be a dialogue, not a monologue.
Katherine Bartol, who has served as guest conductor for the Dauphin County Chorus, says that the old school perception of conductors as larger-than-life figures who crack the whip and terrify performers into obedience is really just a myth. Today’s sophisticated and accomplished conductors understand the importance of communication, and they collaborate rather than coerce performers who feel compelled to interpret something in their own way. Great conductors are very confident, but they are not arrogant. Their only goal is to bring great performances to life, not to inflate their egos.
A common mistake in communication, often made by the conductors of choirs, is when the conductor keeps singing the music while conducting. The role of the singer and conductor are completely different. After the choir knows the music the choir director needs to change rolls from a singer, who is modeling the sound of the vocal parts, to the conductor who brings in the voice parts at the proper entrances, cuts them off on the correct beat, and forms the phrasing, articulation, and dynamics with intricate conducting gesturing. The singers should not be watching the mouth of the conductor for the words but should know the music and watch the conductor’s hands and/or baton for clarity of the beat, tempo, meter, entrances, where to breathe, where to cut off, and how to form the phrases (musical sentences), dynamics (softs and louds), and articulation (accents, staccatos, slurs, portamento, sforzando, etc.). While the choir watches the conductor’s gestures and not the words, they are also more able to concentrate on a sound blend among the other voices.
3. Superior Organizational Skills
Each performance or concert has a specific theme, or set of integrated themes that the performers convey through their talents and artistry. Great conductors have excellent organizational skills to ensure that everything performers need to know is clearly conveyed during scheduled rehearsals. Furthermore, great conductors must be prepared and ready for their performances and understand how they want the music to create a story for the audience.
Katherine Bartol notes that some conductors aren’t time-and-task oriented, and as a result the performers are left to guess how they should interpret a piece of work, or what the themes for a performance should be. Great conductors never let this happen. They are very organized and leave nothing to chance. They establish the plan, and then execute it to perfection. The text (the lyrics) of each work needs to be reviewed and completely understood first by the singers in order for the choir to effectively convey the emotion and meaning of the music. This is especially crucial for singing in foreign languages. Each word should be literally translated and transcribed with the proper diction phonetic symbols. Exemplary conductors will teach the musical expressive elements along with the notes so the singers get the idea of how the composer wanted the piece to sound at the beginning of the learning process. This way the singers are already being prepared to follow appropriate conductor gesturing for these musical elements. Some conductors only teach the notes then try to go back and add the musical expressive elements. Unfortunately the singers have already learned it “wrong” or “half learned” it without the dynamics, diction or articulation, etc. Consequently, this takes much longer to reach the finished product effectively and artistically.