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Teaching Conducting

Thank you to all who responded! Here is a summary of some of the ideas
which were sent to me!

Ilan Glasman
Assistant Professor of Music
Olivet College (Michigan)

1) Be prepared to start from the very beginning!! You will have some
students--perhaps a majority--who cannot keep a beat pattern straight with
one hand. They can learn and they will, but they need LOTS of pattern
practice before you even get to music.

2) The most comprehensive and class-room effective text I
found was written by Prof. J. Labuta from Wayne State Univ. It has many
excellent examples for the class to use as a practical and real life
conducting situation. The students all found it to be an excellent text.

Elizabeth Green at UoM and Joe Labuta at WSU were my conducting teachers.
the wanna-be professional - the Green book is the way to go. For a music
education or church musician conductor - the Labuta book is the best way to
start out. It is extremely comprehensive yet short and practical.

3) I would think you would want to
concentrate on basic gestures/patterns and get them in front of singers,
if possible. Get them to learn what it is like for a group to respond
to them up in front. We know well that doing this "for real" is
different than doing this "for pretend." They will not be nearly as
aware of this difference. I would think for a semester you would want
them to work on 2 or 3 pieces, with the hope that 1 could be done in
performance, possibly. Include score analysis, recognition of any
special problems or difficulties and working with an accompanist would
all be important issues.

4) I would certainly include observation and critique of professional
You might place some videos of Rilling, Shaw, Bernstein and other on reserve
them to review. I would also ask them to do some library work. For example,
them a list of works to find in the library using the various tools such as
Musica, RILM, and the Heyer index to complete works editions. I would also
include a short lesson on transcribing a simple Renaissance motet from its
original notation into modern. This may sound extensive, but these are
that I do every day as a professional conductor and the skills are

5) I'm teaching undergraduate choral conducting. The class consists of
seniors, couple juniors, and one sophomore, but all instrumentalists! Most
intend to teach public school. At each class session we work on a specific
technical issue; for example, what to do with fermatas, conducting
meter, etc., but they are also working on octavos, both sacred and secular,
for various ages from elementary through adults, both auditioned and
unauditioned. The conductors themselves function as these imaginary
choruses. They conduct in a rotation, 3 per class session, and I videotape
them each time. They rehearse these pieces for about 10 minute sessions
and I give them feedback, as well as their fellow conductors. I will be
using music from Gregorian chant to jazz, classical, and popular, hoping
it represents the real world these students will enter. Please let me know
what you're doing. Incidentally, I found the video "What They See Is What
You Get" by Ron Eichenberger and Andre Thomas extremely helpful for my

Dear Colleagues

In answer to my query a couple of weeks ago, in which I asked for
successful approaches to teaching beginning conduction, I received the
following responses (as well as many requests for a compilation-apparently
there is a real interest in conducting pedagogy to be addressed!). Of course
I would be interested in seeing more ideas as they occur to more list
members. Following is my original post and the compiled replies.

Thanks, and have a great semester/ autumn!

Kirin Nielsen

> I am teaching a beginning conducting class this semester, using Brock
> McElheran's text and supplementing it with scores and videos of
conductors.The course is intended to have a combination choral/instrumental
focus and will include work with and without baton.
> To challenge and expand my own ideas and experience, I am curious to hear
> from others on the list about your favorite (and most successful)
conducting class exercises, and about how you approach such a course in
general. Of course we incorporate the tools and practices that we
experienced as
> students. Do you jump right in with standard patterns, or work through
other gestural responses/evocations of music (such as having students moving
> freely to show a phrase or group of phrases, either with a recording or
> while they also sing the phrase)? What do you consider essential for
> beginners to know about score study? Rehearsal technique? Do you have
> favorite methods of improving the conducting student's "ears"? In addition
> using a video tape, how do you ask students to evaluate their own
conducting and their peers' conducting? How much do you have the class do
exercises together, and how much do you follow a master-class (i.e. shared
individual lesson) format? I look forward to hearing your ideas.

Teaching conducting: suggestsions from Choralist members


Bill Weinert used an excellent little collection of mixed meter pieces
written by Daniel Moe, published by Augsburg supplementing the McElheran
text. I liked the Moe anthems because they are single page examples with
lots of "real-life" gestural problems and can be sung or played as single
line examples with piano accompaniment. The book is less than $10.
I have a short supplemental text entitled "A Conductor's Handbook" (vol 1)
published by Thomas House Publications that deals specifically with stick
work, and has a large set of examples that can be done without having to
resort to copying scores...
I can't remember the price, but it's around $5, and they are available from
any reputable music dealer. The distributor is Presser. If you need them
quickly, I know that Joe Keith, at Music Mart in Albuquerque, keeps them on
the shelf. As I recall, Ripon is in the midwest, so you might try Ward
Brodt, Wingert Jones, or Stantons as well.
Vern Sanders
This may have not been exactly the type of response you were expecting, as I

am not a teacher. However, I have taken choral conducting at an
undergraduate level, and I just wanted to offer one piece of advice in
reference to your question.
You were wondering about the idea of starting with standard patterns vs.
starting with directing phrases before learning the standard patterns.
I had an excellent teacher for choral conducting. The first few classes,
however, were a bit borning, because all we did were 2, 3, 4 patterns with
him walking around to make sure everyone kept a steady beat, had a sharp
ictus, icti in the same places at each new bar, etc. etc. This was,
obviously, not the way he intended we conduct, but it helped with the rest
of the semester as far as being able to add and incorporate new things (and
eventually bend/ break "rules") because we had a solid foundation in the
I got a very solid grasp of the techniques (we also did a variety of styles
including changing and compound meters, baton and no baton, etc.) in the
course once I had a solid foundation, and there was no one in the class that

had trouble with harder things as we went on. I have freinds who have taken

conducting at another university, and some of them still have trouble with
certain aspects of the conducting or are harder to follow because they
learned in a different way that played less emphasis on putting the basics
at the beginning.
Anyways, you'll probably get plenty of replies and opinions, but if mine
could go into the pot as the opinion of a student who really enjoyed and did

well in the course, then thank you.
This will sound self-serving, but I think you might benefit from the little
book I wrote in the 80s: Choral Conducting: A Leadership Teaching Approach
(maybe not the exact title.) It was written for the conducting teacher, not
the students. Now available from Shawnee Press, but previously a Mark
publication. Harriet Simons
I have used "cheironomy" and its principles to loosen up students for
"shaping melodies" and "phrases" with their bare hands early in the term.
See New Grove's article on the topic. Later some of this cheironomy can be
recalled for some of the left hand's gestures, as well as those of the
beating right hand. Assign one or two of your favorite Gregorian chants
for everyone to learn ... and conduct cheironomically.
Good luck! I like the McElheran book.
Bruce MacIntyre, Brooklyn College/CUNY
Check out my website . . .
Good luck .
Dr. Philip L. Copeland
The University of Alabama at Birmingham
There is a great video called "What You See is What You Get." I think Santa

Barbara Music Press puts it out. It shows real video of all different types

of poor conducting habits. It then shows the choir being conducted and how
the members mirror the conductors bad habits. It is a real eye opener (and
beats any reality show on TV:))! Good luck with your class.
-Paul Lorigan
What excellent questions!

>Do I jump right into patterns?

Yes. A solid technique from the get go avoids having to break old bad
habits later. It's kind of like learning to play golf. You can teach
yourself to hit the ball on occasion, but then if you take lessons, it's
twice as hard to get your swing down correctly. I find that there are so
many bogus conducting gestures that people either invent or pick up,
that the sooner you can blot them out, the better.

RECORDINGS BAD!!!! Never have your students conduct to a recording. They
have absolutely no control over what is going on in a recording, and
after all, conducting is about controlling the musical experience! Have
your class be their instrument, and insist that the class follow the
conductor TO THE LAST MICROGESTURE, so that he or she can realize just
what is happening with his or her hands and body.

>What do you consider essential for beginners to know about score study?

I have a somewhat controversial view of score study I think, but I
thoroughly believe in it and it works brilliantly for me and my
students. I do not make endless marks in my scores. Nor to do I anylize
it like a theory assignment. Rather, I make sure that I have a complete
understanding of the text, and that I can sing every line myself. To do
a chord by chord analysis, or to mark every phrase and breath is death
to the music as far as I am concerned. Any well trained singer or
conductor is going to know where the phrases are. To make more marks on
the score than the composer did is just plain arrogant as far as I am
concerned. I absolutely detest the blue pencil style of conducting, and
at my advanced age and experience (grin) I refuse to sing for those
kinds of anal-retentive conductors.

>Rehearsal technique?

These are so individual that it is hard to comment, really, but training
your choir to hear well is of mammoth importance. I also like to
develop exercises to get them to be able to sing rhythmically together,
etc. I must say that I do not like the Robert Shaw approach of
incessantly singing on numbers, ta-ta-tas, ti-ti-tis etc. Sure it's
helpful to do that to learn notes for a while, but the sooner you can
get your choir into interpreting a text, the better.

>Do you have favorite methods of improving the conducting student's "ears"?

The best way to train your ears is to know lots of music. Expose your
choir to a vast repertoire and encourage your conductors to know as much
music in as many styles as possible. Before long, they will pick up a
piece of Brahms, for example, and be able to reel it right off because
they will understand Brahms' compositional gestures. They will see a
phrase and say," Oh yeah, that's a Brahms lick, I remeber that is goes
like that in Warum ist das Licht gegeben" if you get my point. Endless
hours of excercises make the singers good at singing excercises. They do
very little, in my experience, for making them thorough choral musicians.

>In addition using a video tape, how do you ask students to evaluate their
own conducting and their peers' conducting?

By having them ask some simple questions of themselves thus:
Did the choir do what I showed? (NOT what I ASKED, what I SHOWED)
Did I SHOW them what I wanted?
Was I clear?
How do I need to change that gesture if I didn't get my desired results?
Conducting is more about showing that about talking. "Shut up and wave
the stick!" is what I often tell my students. Of course you have to give
instructions, but a good 90% of a rehearsal should be about singing and
not about having to hear the conductor run his or her mouth!
How much do you have the class do exercises
> together, and how much do you follow a master-class (i.e. shared
> lesson) format?
I find that the masterclass format works better, as they get more
experience actually hearing the results of their conducting.
Best wishes to you.
Kevin Sutton

My favorite exercise is to take my students to the pool. While in the
water, have them conduct varying patterns to learn resistance in a line or
phrase of music. You'll note that when the hand "slices" the water
vertically, there is little resistance. When the palm "slices" the water
horizantally, there is much resistance. It is, I think one of the most
effective methods for teaching phrasing. This of course is a mid-semester
exercise. But in answer to your other questions, the most important thing I
learned as a beginning conductor was patterns, gestures, and planning-and
the sooner the better. Good Luck
B. Kinch
I have found Daniel Moe's "Problems in Conducting" (Augsburg 11-9369,
pub. 1968) to be a useful supplement for beginning choral conductors.
And it's hard to beat "Rejoice in the Lamb" for teaching mixed meters.
Best wishes-
Keith Reas
After teaching conducting for 15 years I have come to the conclusion
that our conductors need a sense of grace and an economy of motion
before they start putting the gesture with the music. We have some very
bad visual habits in Oklahoma and I believe that it is up to the
collegiate conductors to remedy that. Get them thinking about not
wasting energy with the arms and then connect it to the music in
logical, meaningful gestures. At the beginning (first two weeks) they
work as a group and then it becomes a master class. They also have a
one hour observation due every week and they have to watch two videos
and evaluate them in a semester. they also have to produce 20 warm-up
exercises with 5 of them being "original". They do a lot of work for 2
hours, however, it supposedly is what they are going to do with their
career so it doesn't bother them to much.
There is nothing better for most things on your list than the Elizabeth
book on Conducting. Really fantastic.
James D. Janzen

on June 17, 2002 10:00pm
What about issues of women in conducting? Where are the female role models, issues concerning the hierarchy of choral music? These are as important as any beat pattern, perhaps more important, as the impact of certain gestures when given by a female are often quite different from the same gestures presented by males.
on August 25, 2006 10:00pm
Hey Karen

I teach both undergard and grad programmes in choral conducting, while I find the texts above interesting, I tend to use Busch and Kaplan for pedagogue, everything else is covered by my mentor Colin Durrant in his new book!
on July 17, 2008 10:00pm
The Cambridge Companion to Conducting has a great chapter titled "Women on the Podium" that is great for bringing awareness to issues of women in conducting.