Training Conductors and Musicianship

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Traditionally, conductors in the UK had very little training in actual conducting. The general belief was that being an outstanding musician was the prerequisite, and that those who were truly outstanding would rise into the profession by magic. (What in fact of course happened was that those with egos big enough to believe they were that special volunteered and learned on the job, while the more self-deprecating musicians let them get on with it.)

These days there is rather more opportunity actually to learn some conducting technique, which has to be good for the musical life of the country. (Though the infrastructure is still nothing like as developed as it is either in the US or northern Europe.)

But the old approach did at least have something useful to recommend it: the insistence that the central skill of conducting was in musicianship. Conductors were people with advanced training as instrumental performers and/or composers, which had necessarily entailed in-depth study of the stuff of music. They may have come to stick technique comparatively late, but had the foundation of aural, harmonic and rhythmic skills already built in.

I’ve been thinking about this background of expectations in the context of the training of adult amateurs in choral directing. Britain’s choral life is sustained by an army of dedicated choral leaders with varying levels of musical training, who give their time and energy, sometimes for very little reward, to enable groups of people to enrich their lives by singing together.

These folk now do have a variety of opportunities to get some training in their craft, not just in the summer schools that have been going for decades, but also through organisations such as Sing for Pleasure and the Association of British Choral Directors. Barbershop organisations also run their own specialist programmes.

A major conundrum that faces anyone designing this kind of training is how to handle musicianship. On one hand, musicianship is fundamental to directing - the depth of understanding and fluency of handling of musical materials is a basic determinant of how effective you can be as a director. On the other hand, it isn’t specific to directing as a craft. So, if you are offering specialist provision for conductors, to what extent do you include generalist musicianship skills in your curriculum?

Different organisations come to different conclusions. The Barbershop Harmony Society includes a compulsory session of music theory per day in its week-long Directors College, streamed by level. And in this context, I think this experientially as well as educationally useful - variety of focus helps you pace yourself through an intensive schedule. ABCD, meanwhile, focus their delivery time on conducting-specific skills, thought they do require participants on the Intermediate Course to produce an arrangement, for which tutorial support is offered on an as-needed basis.

The problem itself has two dimensions. First, there is resource: the more stuff you try and fit into the course, the longer and more expensive it gets. Extra breadth and depth add value until the point where the course expands to be too big a time and financial commitment for your target audience. Second, there is effectiveness of learning - musicianship is the kind of skill that develops over time through repeated engagement. An hour two during a weekend of other things is probably not enough to make a significant difference. Indeed, it will probably succeed in undermining confidence as people realise what they can’t do, without the time to secure the skill that will make them feel good about themselves again.

However, if you decide as a result to focus entirely on specialist skills and exclude musicianship from your remit, on the grounds it can be better taught in other contexts, you face two risks. The first is that you leave a hole at the centre of your provision exactly the size and shape of what your participants really need to learn. There really is a limit to how much you can improve hand skills in the absence of a good ear.

The second is that, by omitting it from the curriculum, you send the implicit message that it is peripheral rather than central to the craft. Just because people can study something elsewhere doesn’t mean that they will, especially if it’s an area where they already lack confidence.

So, for those of us grappling with this balancing act in real life, here are three strategies that may help.

  1. Use prerequisites for entrance onto the course. For your most basic level provision, of course, this is tricky in that it could exclude people from any training whatsoever, but if you have graded levels, then a musicianship requirement to progress beyond the first stage would signal their importance effectively
  2. Set preparation requirements that will exercise musicianship skills. For example, requiring participants to come prepared to demonstrate singing extracts from any part of the set repertoire (for a basic level), or to come prepared to score-read the vocal parts at the keyboard in different keys (for advanced levels) would signal to those who can’t do these with ease that they need to do some practice. And the practice itself will improve the skills for next time.
  3. Make sure your sessions on rehearsal and warm-up methods address how to develop musicianship within choir members. If directors are given the wherewithal to help their singers in this dimension, they can thereby also develop the infrastructure to practise it themselves regularly as they work with their singers. I was a decent musician before I started teaching, but clapping with first-year undergraduates every term-time Friday for a decade made me a better one.

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