How to Be an Engaging Conductor

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I’ve been thinking on and off about something Jay Dougherty said in his session on rehearsal pacing at BABS Directors Academy in January, to which I had a classic ‘yes but…’ response. Always good for learning, these!

He made the point that if you want your rehearsal to keep moving, you need to be engaging. And if you don’t feel that you’re outgoing and energetic as a matter of course, this may require some acting, but that’s okay, it’s all part of the conductor’s role. Put some extra energy into your walk, make sure you vary your tone of voice, and everyone will be more alert and attentive.

At one level, this is very apt advice. A lacklustre demeanour will suck energy out of the room and will struggle to keep people focused. But at another, it has the potential to work out quite awkwardly for some people. Pretending to be Tigger when your personality is better suited to Owl could very easily come over as trying too hard and/or inauthentic (and thus not entirely to be trusted) – all of which would be counter-productive.

So of course one has to ask: if acting like an energetic person isn’t going to work for everyone, how should one go about becoming more engaging? Fortunately, lots of other bits of advice Jay gave over the weekend will help us.

First, I’d highlight a point he made in a session on bringing music to life: loudness is not the only way to draw attention to a moment. Pacing, colour, and indeed quietness are all musically useful. If you are better at calmness than energy, then that can be as an effective basis for you to generate engagement in your rehearsals as adding oomph. Boulez had a very different vibe from Bernstein, but they were both superb – and thoroughly engaging - conductors in their ways.

More important than the conductor’s demeanour, I would suggest, are two other elements that Jay highlighted, the first in this session, the second throughout the weekend.

The first is to be prepared. If you go into rehearsal with a clear plan, it is much easier to bring people with you than if you are making all your decisions on the fly. At the simplest level, the more you reduce your own need to faff about or dither, the less opportunity the members of your ensemble have to faff about or dither. Leadership is much more convincing when the leader knows where you’re all headed.

The second is related, but more fundamental: you need a sense of purpose. Jay talked about the need for this in a whole variety of contexts – in your choice of conducting gesture, in your musical/interpretive decisions, in your choice of activities in your warm-up. You need to know why you’re doing something if it is to be effective, and that sense of doing everything for a clear reason provides immediate engagement.

Sometimes you need to tell your singers why you’re doing things, especially if they’re new to the ensemble, or the activity is new to the group. (Or indeed conversely, when it’s something you do regularly – for all the value in offering variety of experience, there are some activities that give more from ongoing application.) But a lot of the time, simply having articulated clearly to yourself why you are doing something will give it an intrinsic sense of purpose. You’ll go about it with a specific aim in mind, and you’ll consequently know precisely when you have achieved that aim. Your thirst for unambiguous outcomes and satisfaction when you get them will attract and hold the attention of your ensemble whatever your outward demeanour.

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