Tag Archives: conducting

In review: Matt Cooke on the Sing for Pleasure conducting course

Each year, thanks to the generous support of one of our musical alumnus benefactors, we send the in-coming student assistant conductor of the University Chamber Choir on a course, ahead of facing the choir for the first time in October. This year, second year French and Business Administration student Matt Cooke (pictured, far right) found himself travelling to Keele University for the week-long Foundation Course run by Sing for Pleasure. Here, Matt reflects on how he got on, the real use for mirrors and folk-dancing…

Back in May, having shown an interest in become the new student conductor for the University Chamber Choir, I was asked to audition. Facing a choir with which I have sung and which I’ve respected so much over the past year was probably one of the toughest things I’ve had to do; describing it as walking into Lord Alan Sugar’s boardroom would be an understatement! Regardless, I was pleased with how the audition went and consequently overjoyed to find out that I would be taking on the role. I couldn’t wait to start choosing repertoire and to attend the Conductors course itself.

Two weeks before I was due to attend the Sing for Pleasure summer school, a pack of music arrived at home containing the four pieces of music that I would have to prepare for the week’s course. I’ll be honest, looking at these scores I was a bit confused as to why the pieces were so simple. A musical round of 4 bars hardly seemed a challenge compared to Rachmaninoff’s Bogoroditsye Dyevo, which I’ve chosen to tackle this autumn with the choir. Nevertheless, I recorded the chosen pieces into Garageband and proceeded to ‘study’ them in the lead up to the course.

I had spent a week prior to the course performing up at the Edinburgh Fringe; arriving at Keele University for the start, it was safe to say I was exhausted, but regardless I couldn’t wait to get started. The 7am start was daunting enough, but after the huge buffet breakfast followed by a strong black coffee, everything didn’t seem so bad! After breakfast we had a vocal warm-up, which every participant on each of the different courses attended. Each warm-up session focused on different warm-up techniques to engage different choirs in different situations. This was followed by a one-hour choral session taught by the tutors. We looked at a Mass written by Ariel Ramirez, called Misa Criolla. It was a challenging piece of music in its own right, but not only did we have two days to learn and perform it, it was written in Latin-American Spanish, which surprisingly didn’t come naturally to many of the choir!

Following the Choral session, we had the first technique session, where all of the foundation conductors came together to focus on the basic gestures and patterns. Firstly, we started on the correct hand position. ‘This can’t be too difficult’, was a phrase that was shortly shot out of my head the minute we started! After what seemed like an eternity of extreme concentration and focussed practise, we began our individual workshops where we split into two smaller groups (picture left) and began work on our prepared pieces. As mentioned above, the pieces didn’t seem particularly challenging, but I soon realised that even the simplest of pieces were a challenge when it came to practising the correct hand gestures and techniques learnt from the previous session.

What really made these sessions so helpful and rewarding was supporting our other class mates during their section of conducting. It was particularly useful to identify common errors, and how to fix them. It was soon found to my surprise that I talk and waffle too much and move too dramatically for music that doesn’t need such gestures. Who’d have thought it! Our tutor Ruth showed us a technique to combat this. I had to stand up against the wall whilst conducting. This kept my back and shoulders against the wall, supporting a good posture, meaning that my beat pattern was the focus of the singers, rather than an over-expressive shoulder.

After a freshly prepared lunch, we moved onto what was perhaps the highlight of my week. We were asked to sing for the Intermediate 2 level conductors, where they were conducting a new arrangement of some Barbershop classics. Having never sung Barbershop before it was great to find out how much I enjoyed it. The session flew by, and before dinner we had an hour of personal preparation and practise. The week has shown me that a mirror is not just for spending hours doing one’s hair, but also to repeatedly go over gestures and beat patterns for practise! The evening’s entertainment was folk-dancing. Admittedly folk dancing isn’t my strong point, but after a couple of drinks, and a disregard of my dignity, we all had a great laugh and what a fantastic ice-breaker that was!

Day two was much the same, with a vocal warm-up followed by choral and technique session. We focused on 2,3 and 4-beat patterns and looking at how to start pieces which begin on an upbeat,  on the bounce-anacrusis and single anacrusis, and how to use them in each time-signature. Following another brilliant Barbershop session and practise session in the mirror, we had Monday night’s entertainment, the first of two informal concerts, where anyone could offer to perform something if they wish.

Tuesday, was a repeat of Monday, with the addition of the formal concert. Wednesday, was a particularly good day with the afternoon off to practise and perhaps a little nap. The evening was taken up by the dress-up, sing-along version of the Sound of Music. It was great fun to see the weird and wonderful costumes that people had made, a particular highlight being the group who had dressed up as the mountains…

Thursday bought with it again more choral sessions this time lead by the advanced conductors. They introduced two more pieces, Vivaldi’s Beatus Vir and Emmanuel d’Astorga’s Stabat Mater, which were to be performed on the Saturday evening. Watching the skills and professionalism of the advanced conductors was a great motivation to see what we could be like in years to come. However, back in reality, we had chosen our pieces to perform in our foundation concert, I had chosen My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean but the other songs conducted by the others included the Welsh traditional All Through the Night and American Traditional Strike the Bell. After this we had bigger things to prepare such as the performance of the Barbershop chorus, which with huge over the top reactions and moments of comic singing, went down a treat for the watching audience with laughter throughout.

Friday was The Big Day for the foundation conductors. For the majority of us we’d conduct a choir for the first time in a concert setting (pictured above). Further rehearsals throughout the day, settled our nerves and we were all very excited to get on stage and perform. I’m glad and very proud to say that the whole concert was a huge success followed by a very relieved bow at the end of each piece! To follow a successful day, we had the second informal concert of the week. I performed in two acts, one of which was ‘Without Love’ from the musical Hairspray and myself and three other guys performed in Barbershop quartet of the song Shine on Me which was received with great laughs and applause

Saturday wasn’t as relaxed as we had hoped as we had last minute rehearsals with the advanced conductors and video feedback from our performances yesterday, where we got to watch our conducting and to reflect on what we had learnt during the week. Reflecting on my performance, I hadn’t quite eradicated the dramatic head and shoulder movements, but applied to the right piece I’m sure it could be quite effective, however for the time being I’ll leave Beethoven’s 9th to the professionals. Saturday evening brought a fantastic performance of the advanced conductors and both pieces of music. It was followed by the awards and then the end-of-course party. I won’t talk too much about the party for several reasons but, ordering over £150 worth of pizza goes to show how big the party was…

Overall I can’t praise and recommend Sing for Pleasure enough for the thorough and professional attitude that all the tutors have to the teaching and development of every participant. The tutors are fantastic and incredibly willing to teach and help but also friendly, making this week not one to forget. I can’t wait to book onto the next course. The week has taught me so much that will benefit many people for the years to come. I would even go as far to say, that it has inspired me to pursue a career in conducting and music, if I were to continue my training. A huge ‘thank you’ to everyone who made the week a fantastic week and to those who enabled me to attend this course, I am incredibly grateful!

Good conduct: second-year Doug reflects on the ABCD Young Conductors Course last month

Each year, the University Chamber Choir auditions for the post of student conductor, mentored by Your Loyal Correspondent, to work on several pieces with the choir during its performing year. This year, the task falls to second-year Law student and bass, Doug Haycock, who, in preparation for the role, attended the Young Conductors Course as part of the Association of British Choral Directors Convention last month. Here, Doug reflects on his experience.

On the 26th-28th August I was lucky enough to take part in the Association of British Choral Directors annual convention. The University of Kent Music Department sent me on the course due to my being awarded the position of student conductor, where I shall deputy under Dan Harding conducting the University Chamber Choir.

Doug Haycock (left)

Doug Haycock (left)

Over the span of the course I was taught several beginner tactics and tricks that every conductor should know. I was taught how to conduct most simple time signatures, both simple and compound. It was also demonstrated to us how to to easily teach melody lines by simple aural methods, and, leading from that, a round.

As well as the Young Conductors course, I was able to meet John Rutter as well as other British composers. I also attended several repertoire sessions that took me through new editions and compositions that had been released in the last year. I also attended vocal training sessions where we were taught how to try and obtain the best sound out of your choir.

Doug Haycock (back left) at the convention.

Doug Haycock (back left) at the convention.

The whole weekend was amazing for what it taught me in conducting, vocal training, and repertoire.


Doug (second from left); spot last year’s student conductor and recent alumni, Joe Prescott too…

With thanks to Amy Bebbington for the photos.

All aboard! No passengers

A series looking at the art of the choral conductor.

ConductingOne of the aspects of singing with an ensemble that less experienced performers can sometimes forget is actually being responsible for making your individual contribution to the ensemble.

Each member of the choir has to contribute to a collective responsibility for delivering the musical line, and not just wait to follow rest of their section as, by definition, they will then be behind the beat.

Where quaver up-beats are used to begin a phrase, this is especially important; think of the opening of I Saw Three Ships; in 6/8, the conductor gives the first and fourth beats, leaving the fifth and sixth undirected – the choir enter on the sixth, the upbeat. That’s two undirected beats to leave up to a group of singers to count and then come in, in the right place.

What members of the choir need to grasp is the fact that they each need to be responsible for entering in the right place; this means everyone counting the rests and coming in confidently on the sixth quaver, the up-beat with which the phrase begins. Rather than waiting for everyone else to enter and then follow them, which means they will necessarily be fractionally late, they need to sing as though they are taking the lead, or indeed are singing on their own – everyone will then sing together, and the ensemble sound will begin at the start of the phrase rather than emerging a few notes into the phrase when everyone else joins in.

The overall effect is to improve the ensemble throughout; if the phrase starts confidently and with everyone together, the rest of the phrase will similarly be strong. Less experienced choir-members can tend to wait for stronger members of the section to lead, and then follow slightly after; this means the overall togetherness of the ensemble never quite comes, and entries can be ragged and lacking in confidence.

Make sure, as a conductor, that you rehearse the beginnings of phrases such that everyone is confident enough to come in for themselves, and the overall ensemble will be much more positive as a result.

No passengers.

Read the other articles in the series here.

Coming to terms with – the new term

With the new academic year beginning in just three weeks’ time, it’s been a busy summer putting together programmes for the Chamber and Cecilian choirs for the coming year.

ConductingI always find this period exciting and also rather daunting – the opportunity to explore new repertoire, the search for suitable pieces that can be combined to form a cohesive concert programme, and looking at former favourites and wondering if it’s too soon to unearth them again, is fun and interesting, but then comes having to plan the rehearsal schedule, order the chosen pieces, and then seating myself at the piano to learn the pieces.

I always find that first sitting at the piano, with the pile of new scores in front of me, somewhat daunting – so much music to learn. What has rescued me was remembering a previous post I’d written about how to learn music quickly, by starting at the end and working backwards. This technique means you aren’t faced with the psychologically daunting prospect of a new page when you’ve learned the first and turn over to the next; instead, you learn the last page, then turn back to the page before and play through this and on into the page you’ve just learned.

This is much more empowering – you finish by playing the section you’ve just learned, which boosts your morale, and as you work backwards, you find that sections you’ve already learned are in fact a reprise from earlier in the piece, which means you’ve already learnt it.

I don’t actually know whether this practice actually shortens the amount of time spent learning a piece, but it certainly feels as though it does, which makes the task of moving through the scores seem much quicker.

There’s also the act of planning – with a brand-new choir, you want to rehearse pieces that they will be able to pick up quickly, so they feel early on that they have started to achieve and develop a real belief in their performing and working as an ensemble; however, there’s also the tricky question of when to introduce the harder pieces – too soon and they lose morale, too late and there’s not enough time to learn them properly before the concert. Notwithstanding the question of how soon is too soon to start working on the seasonal repertoire for Christmas ? You don’t want to start it in the late summer evenings in September, but you don’t want to leave it to the last minute either. Decisions, decisions…

This year, I’ll also be sharing conducting with a second-year student, a chance for one of the students to hone their conducting skills and perform with a choir during the year.

I’m about halfway through learning the pieces for the coming term, having prioritised those which will be worked on in early rehearsals. So far, so good. There’s a contemporary carol for the University Carol Service, some Italian madrigals, some twentieth-century British pieces, some French music, and more: I’m not going to give anything away here about the nature of the Crypt Concert in February, but I’m sure it will become clear as we follow the progress of rehearsals here on the blog.

Watch this space…

Circle in the Round: moving the choir in rehearsal

A series looking at the art of the choral conductor.

ConductingIt’s important, in rehearsals, to move the choir around. Too often, voice-parts grow accustomed to hearing the same singers around them each week which, if it’s their own voice-part, can lead to a great sense of security and, sometimes, a reliance on that other singer.

Moving the singers around in practice sessions means they hear a different voice-part singing next to them; breaking up the group, such that they stand in a circle but aren’t standing next to someone who is singing the same part as they are, means they suddenly don’t have the comfort-blanket of being surrounded by others singing the same line. Not only do they have to work a bit more to keep their own line, but they can suddenly hear another line next to them, and can start to hear how their line moves in relation to another. (It’s also a great way of showing singers who don’t quite know their line that they need to learn their music, without pointing fingers at individuals…!).

Socially, too, it’s a useful tool to deploy: people suddenly have to stand and sing next to others whom they might not know so well, and it’s a great way of getting them working with others.

Arranging the choir in a circle, rather than in lines, means that the sound is directed into the centre; everyone can now hear the complete sonority to which they are contributing, focusing the sound and also making them aware of balancing the parts: at particular points, one vocal line may be more important than the others, key notes in the chord colour the balance and influence the harmonic motion, and a moving line leads from one chord to the next. All these factors are significant, helping the singers understand the importance or the relevance of their contribution, and hence give meaning to their line and the way they sing it.

In our rehearsals, it’s become known as ‘Circle Time;’ a chance for everyone to get out of the rows in which they sit, to stand together and to hear a different sound. Move your singers around, and see how it affects the way they sing and the sense of ensemble the ensues: it’s sure to be different, and a positive experience.

Breathe with me: working with a choir

A series looking at the art of the choral conductor.

ConductingOne of the most useful pieces of advice to give someone who wants to learn about choral conducting is always to breathe with the choir.

Michael CaineI remember, many years ago, watching the great Michael Caine giving an acting masterclass on television; the topic was how to work with the camera whilst being filmed, and one of the key things he pointed out to the students was to make sure that, when you were moving (in this instance, getting up out of a chair), you took the camera-man with you. Letting the camera-man know that you were going to move by communicating your intent, he said, meant that the chap wielding the monstrously-large film-camera wouldn’t get a hernia through having to follow a sudden movement.

The same is true with directing a choir. In rehearsal, when working on a particular phrase or entry, you need to give the choir a chance to breathe in preparation. I’ve seen a few young conductors say ‘Right, sopranos, bar 40: here’s your note, GO!’ Whilst their enthusaism to get on with rehearsing is great, it never works: the singers are so busy getting ready in their own minds – finding their note, remembering the words and the tempo – that they can’t possibly all come in together without proper warning.

Counting them in both gives them time to breathe in readiness, as well as reminds them of the tempo at which you want to take the passage: if you’re note-bashing, the speed will necessarily be slower to help them get the notes right, and if you’re now taking the music at concert speed, it will let them know the new, quicker tempo.

A simple ‘OK, sopranos; let’s try your phrase at bar 40: here’s your note; and… three… four…’ The singers aren’t suddenly caught on the hop and left struggling to catch up: you’ve let them know where you’re starting from, gathered them all together and, in counting them in, given them time to breathe in anticipation. Replacing the last counted beat with the instruction to breathe is also useful: “Ready, sopranos; two…three…breathe!”

Always breathe. And with your choir, too.

Ask or tell ? Relating to a choir

A series looking at the art of the choral conductor.Conducting

How should  a conductor relate to their choir: should they ask them to create a sound in the manner they conduct, or tell them ? Should they invite a response from the choir, or should they demand it ?

The days of the dictatorial conductor are long gone; no more the total authority of a Karajan, or the sheer force of a Solti, famously nick-named the ‘Screaming Skull.’

Ensemble musicians need to feel that they are being developed, even in a large-scale ensemble like an orchestra or a choir. A conductor who imposes his will by brooking no arguments can make his musicians feel that they are being given no room to develop themselves if they are simply forced to play in the manner someone else dictates. Musicians at La Scala famously rejected Maestro Muti on the grounds that, although he is a world-class conductor, they felt they weren’t being given the ability to develop as players: they were simply doing what they were told all the time.

A conductor should always bear in mind that conducting is an ensemble event: you need the singers or players to perform not just for you, but with you.

The best compliment I ever received as a student conductor at university was from someone who remarked that, in directing a group of musicians, the way I brought them in was in a manner that invited them to play, rather than told them ‘right, you’re coming in NOW!’ This has really stuck in my mind, and I think is perhaps a technique that should be remembered: ask your singers to give of their best, rather than tell them they have to be giving it.

As a conductor, I feel my job is done when the choir can perform without my standing in front of them at all. They have the confidence, the experience, and the trust in one another to perform almost without being directed. On these occasions, my job is simply to remind them of what we’ve rehearsed – dynamics, phrasing, etc. – and cajole them into doing what they know they can already do.

Let them fly, and they’ll take you with them into greater heights than ever they would have, had you been driving them along instead. Ask them.

Trust me, I’m a conductor

A series looking at the art of the choral conductor.

It’s hard, as an ensemble musician, to trust a conductor; you know and trust your own abilities, you know how a piece goes if you’ve performed it before, you’ve learnt it if you haven’t, and you also know that the success of your performance is now dependent on the person standing up in front of everyone. If they get it wrong and you all fall apart, then you personally will look silly, even if you were where you were supposed to be, playing what you were supposed to be playing.

ConductingThe rehearsal process is about establishing trust between performer and conductor; going in to those first rehearsals, as a conductor, you already have to know the pieces inside out. It’s a very scary moment: everything you do at that first meeting will define the whole process to come: how well you handle the group socially as well as musically; how you establish your musical authority in such a way as to convince the group that you know what you’re doing; how you communicate your ideas and intentions in such a way as to allow them to understand. There’s no time to be learning the pieces on the hoof, as it were, whilst trying to use rehearsal time effectively.

As with standing in front of a class of children or a group of students in a lecture theatre in the first term, part of the initial process is helping the group learn how to learn. The way in which you impart your ideas at the beginning needs to be done in such a way as to help them realise “Ah, right: that’s the way I will pick up information; that’s the way in which I’m going to be asked to produce results.” As you continue to develop your rehearsals over the ensuing weeks, you will be reinforcing this process: the sooner you can help them understand how you work and how you will ask things of them and how they can demonstrate them, the sooner they will start to respond.

All of this goes towards establishing trust, a crucial factor in the working relationships in rehearsal and performance. If you cannot convince the group that you know what you are doing, and that you have the means to guide them towards achieving the outcomes you want, they won’t place any trust in you: that lack of faith will destroy any chance of working together and producing a great performance.  That doesn’t mean imposing your authority: in fact, trying to do so will actually be as counter-productive as not being any good at your job in the first place.

I’ve sat or stood in front of conductors who have shown me, within the first five minutes, that they either don’t know the piece or that they don’t know how to rehearse; sometimes, that they don’t actually know how to conduct either. It doesn’t take long to come to this conclusion – as musicians, we work with a variety of other people, and have to assess and adapt pretty quickly – and once it’s set in, it can be very hard to shift.

How do you convince your choir that you know what you are doing, and how do you get results out of them in a positive manner ?

That’s for the next post.

The eyes have it: the conductor’s arsenal

A series looking at the art of the choral conductor.

As remarked in the previous post, the conductor’s job is made difficult by the fact that, of all the performers, you are the only one unable to make a sound. All those exhortations you’ve given in rehearsals, all those encouragements you’ve uttered, all those points you’ve flagged up as looming up ahead whilst in mid-phrase – you can’t do any of that in performance.

ConductingSo, what have you got as a conductor ?

Your hands are the most obvious tools: at their most functional, the right-hand articulates the beat, the left-hand gestures to bring people in. The left-hand has an additional role, in also crafting the nature of the sound. But the expression comes in the beat as well, in the manner in which the right hand beats the time. Depending on how you give the beat with the right hand, the resultant sound will be different: a brisk beat will engender a crisp sound in the performers, a gentle beat will elicit a more languid sound and so on. The left hand adds an additional dimension to the shaping of the sound, and can also be used to guide the unfolding phrase, leading the singers through a sustained phrase, or drawing them together for sudden silences; opening wide for greater forte or closing gently for a delicate pianissimo.

The conductor’s eyes are a particularly effective tool of communication; you use them to glance at a voice-part to alert them to the fact that they are coming in shortly, and look directly at performers when they come in; they can also express the nature of the sound you’re expecting – a fierce glare for a dramatic moment, half-closed eyes for a moment of profound beauty, and so on. I recall once playing the piano in a contemporary music ensemble, and waiting to come in; at the moment I was due to play, the conductor’s gaze struck me like a blow and the conducting hand shot out like a rocket towards me: I played the chord with perhaps more percussive force than in rehearsal, which was just the effect he wanted in the performance.

The conductor’s face is  also important, and is perhaps the least voluntarily controlled yet most responsive aspect; as you are moved by what you are conducting, so your face can’t help but respond to the emotional nature of the moment.

Here’s an example of Leonard Bernstein conducting with nothing but his eyebrows, almost: from 3′ 46” onwards, in the encore, he gives the orchestra complete freedom, and gestures only with his face: and how exuberantly the orchestra responds.

You might not be able to make a sound, as a conductor, but you can certainly articulate, through your eyes, your hands and your face, what sound you want everyone else to be making!

In the next post, I’ll be looking at establishing a rapport with the choir in those early rehearsals.

Not drowning but waving: the conductor

A series looking at the art of the choral conductor.

What exactly is the job of a choral conductor ? There are quite a few things a choral conductor needs to do: make sure the group are in tune, singing rhythmically accurately, have the correct vowel  shapes, are pronouncing the text correctly, are balanced between the voice-parts, observe phrases and dynamics, and so forth.

ConductingBut then there’s something more; and this is where the job starts to become really interesting. Once the ensemble is working as a unit, the conductor starts to craft the performance of a piece – the point at which the music lifts off the page and becomes a real experience.

It’s hard to define exactly when this moment occurs; usually, you find that you haven’t noticed when it happened, and you suddenly realise that both you and the choir have left the printed score far behind and are moving into new territory. It usually occurs at the point when both the conductor and the choir are really no longer referring to the score any more: all the tempi, dynamics, the phrases and articulation are all ingrained, and all these different elements have been combined into the piece in a manner that has become instinctive.

The most obvious sign that this point has been reached is when both you and the choir are moving and breathing as one; you trust the choir to produce the sound, and they trust you to guide the performance.

This allows a marvellous freedom and adaptability into the performance now: you start to explore new things together with each performance. Some performance spaces require greater time to be taken at the ends of phrases in order to allow the reverberation to recede sufficiently before beginning the next phrase; some spaces seem to ask for a fuller sound, some more intimate spaces need a smaller sound;  some performances become so engrossing that you dwell on a pause or on the silence at the end of a piece for just that little bit longer, to allow the full implication of the chord or phrase you have just sung to sink in before moving on. Sometimes a colour occurs in the sound that is new, engendered by the environment or the mood that day.

Sometimes (and these are the best times), you all just can’t help yourselves – the choir seem to be able to give more than they ever have before, you find you’re now cajoling more from them than you have asked for in rehearsal; you are all moved to greater emotional depth than before, or you find a dance-rhythm has just that little bit more lift and energy. It’s unpredictable; you can’t tell when it’s going to happen, you just have to be confident in each other enough to know that, if it does occur, you’ll all go with it together.

It’s difficult as a conductor because, of course, you’re the only one who’s unable to make a sound. So what can you use to communicate your intent ?

That’s for the next post.