10 Tips on being an inspirational conductor of adult choirs – by Graeme Morton AM

  1.  Be inspired yourself

It is all too easy for we conductors to get bogged down with the weekly grind of conducting the choir, or with hassles with other people in the organisation/church, or in maintaining the balance between our “conductor life” and the rest of life. These can all be transcended by reminding ourselves of our belief in the choir’s mission, by our commitment to, and love of, the music, and the joy of interacting with our singers.

 

  1.  Be inspiring yourself

Adult singers come to choir for a wide variety of reasons, some musical, some social, some because of their sense of commitment and in some cases for reasons not necessarily obvious even to the singers themselves. Remember that singers bring to the rehearsal many of the problems of daily life, and at rehearsal encounter all their doubts and concerns about their musical competence. It is the conductor’s inspiration that in large part enables the singers to let go of such matters, and to come to a place where the music itself elevates this spirit and nourishes their soul.

Remember that to be a conductor is to be an actor! Play the role of the embodiment of inspiration, even if your own inner strength is a little lost.

 

  1.  Train the choir with purpose

The singers in your choir are often as time-poor as you are, and possibly more so. Some conductors in response to this, and being sensitive to their singers, minimise the amount of rehearsal and even cancel rehearsals when there appears to be no immediate need to rehearse. Other conductors take an opposite view, and run the choir in such a way that the singers feel that the time they devote to choir is worthwhile. Rather than feeling that they were “wasting time” that could have been spent in other important pursuits, the singers feel uplifted by what has been achieved, and by the rehearsal experience, and that the rehearsal was time well spent.

 

  1. Find a balance between the choir that is and the choir that is to come

As the conductor it is important that we have a sense that our choir will be different in the future than it is now. If we train the choir without any sense of what that future is, the choir will never get there, but if we train the choir focusing too much on that future, current singers may well become daunted and discouraged, so find the balance between these two ends of the continuum.

So for example, while you may think your choir not yet ready to attempt the wonderful unaccompanied music of the Renaissance, and to achieve the sublime beauty of that style, to not ever attempt it will not encourage new and more competent singers to your choir, nor inspire your current singers to think beyond the choral world they already know. But too much Renaissance music too soon may well discourage the singers who are
currently in the choir. Find the balance.

 

  1.  Know the difference between your singers as “the choir” and as your friends

The role of conductor has with it a certain level of detachment from our singers, at least while we are fulfilling the role of “designated leader” of the ensemble. How else can we manage with authority processes such as placing singers, correcting singers, chiding singers, and encouraging accountability from the members of the choir? In “choir time” (as distinct from social time) such a distinction is important. This is not to say we should appear detached, nor be unfriendly. We must show, and must be seen to show, to each individual in the choir, so that each person feels valued and affirmed within the ensemble.

 

  1.  Give each singer a sense of musical self-worth

Research about excellence in music has identified that the best musicians have a sense of self – efficacy, and that those ensembles whose members have such a sense will develop better than when members have a poor sense of their worth as a musician, or of their role in the ensemble. Further members with a poor sense of self-efficacy will not only fail to make a positive contribution to the choir – they may eventually leave.

So encourage each of your singers to understand their musical gifts and/or the role they play within the ensemble. For amateur musicians this is especially important because many will be “victims” of the idea that good musicians have some special inner talent that the rest of us missed out on – the idea of “God – given gifts”. Recent research also shows us that what separates the expert from the person with less expertise is also about the amount of training and skill development that the expert has undergone, rather than about talent or giftedness. To quote the title of one such book that discusses this issue “Talent is Overrated”. Further, the amateur musician is unlikely to recognise the musical “gifts” that are naturally a part of their personal make up. For example, a singer who naturally phrases expressively may not recognise this in themselves because it was not a skill they had to work hard to acquire. It was just there. As conductors we can encourage their sense of musical self-worth by helping them identify, and by us acknowledging, such qualities.

 

  1.  Share your own mission for the choir with the members.

On the face of it one might assume that the mission of the choir is self evident, and particularly in a church choir. However, the reality is that the choir will have a variety of missions – to the church itself, and specifically to the liturgy, to the members (obviously), and possibly to the community in which the church is placed, and different church choirs will place different values on these various aspects of the mission.

Make sure your choir members share or at least understand your view of the choir. Is it first and foremost to (1) serve the liturgy, or (2) is the social element of choir membership the first priority (that is, having the church provide a dynamic and cohesive church organisation alongside the other organisations that make up the community life of the church), and the liturgy itself provides a framework for the choir while the choir’s internal dynamic remains the first priority? Alternatively, is the first priority in the choir’s mission to (3) expand the knowledge and experience of sacred music shared by choir members and the congregation, or is such a developmental role not part of the mission of your choir? Or is the role of the choir to manifest the Christian injunction to (4) be the best that we can be, and if so to what extent is this to be the focus on the individual, or the focus of the choir as a single unit? In other words the “best possible choir” might have visions of excellence that cannot be realised even when all members strive for the individual best, so if this is the prime purpose of the choir, some singers may be excluded. These same singers may have a very worthwhile role in the choir if other aims underpin the mission of the choir.

All of the above views of a church choir have legitimacy, but you can see that some of these would make uncomfortable bedfellows, and the juxtaposition of such differing views held by different choir members may make the achievement of an inspiring choir difficult.

 

  1. Love the music that you sing, as well as loving your singers who sing it

Well of course, I hear you say, I do! However I think many conductors have this out of balance. My point is that the music deserves to receive more “love” than at present, and that we conductors often confuse love of the music with love of what the music does for us (e.g. we might love it because it provides the means by which the singers choose to come together to sing). I often get the impression that many conductors believe that they love the music when in fact what they love is not fundamentally the music itself, but other tangential things that arise from the music. Why else would there be so many choirs that perform very poor music, pleasant though the experience may be? It is because the prime focus is on the flow-on benefits of the music, rather than on the music itself.

Look at it this way. Unless we sing music we are not a choir, so in this sense it is the music itself that gives us a role and an “excuse” to interact together as musicians – it justifies our existence as a community group. And because it is this interaction which gives such satisfaction and joy the danger is that we confuse this good that the music achieves for us with the good of the music itself. So in your reflecting on the conductor’s role, strive for the intrinsic appreciation of the music and not merely an appreciation of what it does for your choir.

And it is not an either/or situation. To focus on poor music which gives a sense of community is surely not as enriching as focusing on great music (which also gives a sense of community).

 

  1.  Forgive failure and celebrate success

Sometimes as conductors we need, it seems, to be able to articulate musical criticisms of our singers or their efforts as proof that we ourselves are musically astute. And as Australians I suspect it is our nature to be deprecating of others rather than affirming. But since “nothing succeeds like success” use positives as the foundation for future growth, rather than over-emphasising the negatives.

 

  1.  Accept duality – Don’t expect the singers to be (and think) like you, and similarly do not be (or think) like your singers.

Accept the duality of the conductor’s role as reflected in the following juxtapositions. a) have high expectations while accepting that they will often not be fulfilled b) make the choir one of the most important priorities in your life and accept that it may not be so in the lives of your singers.