To all those people who support me in my program but have no clue what I’m actually doing….this post is for you.
I grew up in a family of musicians. Music was a part of daily life, sort of like eating. In fact, we often sang a prayer my dad arranged before meals. People called our family the “von Webers”, sort of like the von Traps, from The Sound of Music. It was not unusual for us to be singing 5-part harmonies together. More often, we’d be spread out around the house – my dad composing at the piano, my brother practicing on his drumset in the garage, my mom listening to organ music in her room, and my sister blasting 90s music on the radio. (So maybe it’s not so surprising that I actually prefer spending my time in silence!)
I tell you all of this to explain how second-nature musical language has been to me my entire life. Both of my parents are conductors, and I’ve sung in choirs from as early as I can remember. I have mostly been surrounded by like-minded (and like-talented!) people, so it came as a complete surprise to me last May when I met someone who didn’t know what choral conducting was. Our conversation went something like this:
“Coral conducting…is that something having to do with generating electricity from a coral reef?”
“Umm, no. I direct choirs.”
“Ohhh…like an orchestra?”
“Yeeeah… but a choir. In the same way that big cities have orchestras, they also have community choirs.”
“Wow, I didn’t realize such a thing existed!”
Now, I thought for several months that this person was simply stupid. But since then – since starting this program in August – I have come across many other people who have also asked if Coral Conducting had to do with electricity and the ocean. I just paused after typing that sentence because I must say I am still in shock about this. So I’m seeing it as my duty to better explain what it means to be a CHoral Conductor.
There are perhaps 3 main types of choral conducting jobs:
1) Conducting a church choir
2) Conducting a choir at a school – middle school, high school, college
3) Conducting a community choir
I, however, believe that there is huge potential for any number of other kinds of choirs. In fact, I started a choir of homeless women in DC three years ago (and just led a presentation about the experience at the American Choral Directors Association Regional Conference in Rhode Island this past weekend! More on that in another post). At this conference, I met other people who direct prison choirs, intergenerational choirs, or choirs of differently disabled adults. Making music is not something to be limited to any specific group of people…it’s a basic human right! So I hope you can join me in imagining that there may be far beyond three different directions I could head in after leaving this place.
Now that we have a sense of what a choir is, I’d like to briefly share the types of skills I’m expected to have as a Choral Conductor:
- I should have vocal skills (or shall I say “skillz”). Since I’m leading groups of singers, I should know a thing or two about singing myself.
- I should have piano skills. A general ability to play easy accompaniments is crucial. (Thanking my parents in retrospect for forcing me to take piano lessons until I was 18…)
- I should have, what we call in music, “a good ear.” Probably sounds funny to the non-musician. Basically, I need to develop my level of hearing so that I can listen to a group of singers and accurately critique what they sound like (eg. are they singing in tune?). In the fall, I took a “Hearing” class (which other schools generally call Ear Training or Aural Skills). This semester, I’m taking Advanced Hearing. My ears are getting in good shape!
- I should have a good knowledge of repertoire. What choral music is out there? I’d better know if I’m going to pick pieces for my choir.
- I should excel at music history. The more I know about composers and how music used to be performed in certain time periods, the better I can interpret and teach those pieces to choirs today.
- I should excel at music theory. This is probably hard to understand for the non-musician. But basically, I need to understand the intricacies of how a piece of music is composed, which will also help me in my interpretation of the piece.
- I need to learn how to wave my arms around in a meaningful way. Yes, that’s what conductors do. In fact, that’s the only thing people think most conductors do – wave their arms whilst holding a wand. Well, I’d like to clear a few things up. First, it’s a BATON (though I do rather like calling it a wand). And secondly, in the waving of our arms, we are not just showing the tempo (how fast/slow the song goes), but we are also supposed to be showing how loud/soft it should be, the direction of each phrase, and the meaning of the text (among other things). And thirdly, beyond what our arms are doing while we’re conducting, our ears are probably the most active!
So in many ways, Conducting requires you to be a bit of an all-star musician. You could go to school to study music theory, or music history, or composition, or piano, or voice. But we have to be decent at all of the above. Phew!
I spent this weekend surrounded by hundreds of Choral Conductors, once again in my little bubble of musicians. I seem to be having a strong reaction by making a (hopefully successful) attempt to strip away the jargon of my field and catch everyone up on my current studies! No more questions about my work with coral reefs!