Conducting and Common Sense

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Greg Beardsell presenting on conductingGreg Beardsell presenting on conductingAt the National Youth Choir’s Young Leaders event the other week, Associate Musical Director Greg Beardsell got some interesting debates going during his session on conducting. He asked participants to position themselves on a continuum between agreement and disagreement on questions such as:

  • Conducting is a skill that can be practised
  • In the UK, choral directors tend to have a lower status than orchestral conductors
  • Conducting is largely a matter of common sense

It is the last of these I want to focus on today, because it produced such interesting responses from the group. There was nobody who agreed or disagreed absolutely, but there was a considerable spread of opinions across the middle ground. Those who disagreed explained their views in the following terms:

Common sense is all about logic, and conducting needs a lot of intuition.

Conducting rests on a real depth of knowledge and technique; there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye.

These are good answers. I don’t think any musician is going to argue with the need to bring the holistic and imaginative parts of ourselves along to do the job properly, and it’s also good to see people grasping the idea that conducting is not a simplistic activity. I always suspect that people who aren’t slightly daunted when they first pick up a baton haven’t noticed quite how much they need to do.

On the other hand, all the professional conductors in the room were clustered nearer the ‘agree’ side. We didn’t really explore why this might be – Greg quite reasonably focused on hearing the voices of those who were there in a student role rather than their teachers.

But my hunch is that those in the room with regular experience directing ensembles just have a keener awareness of the practical needs of producing a performance with an inherently limited rehearsal time. Lofty ideals are important to motivate artistry, but without pragmatism they are utterly helpless.

And common sense is what stops conductors getting too self-obsessed. Yes, conducting requires depth of knowledge, and insight, and interpersonal magic and a well-honed technique, yada yada yada. But none of that has any point unless the music sounds good. It doesn’t matter who you studied with, what refinements to technique you have discovered, or what new vision of the music you have developed if you aren’t helping your performers to sound their best.

The common sense that conducting needs, then, isn’t a reductive approach as some of the NYC young leaders feared. It’s simply a matter of remembering to ask, ‘How does this sound?’ and ‘What do we need to do to make it sound better?’ If we keep asking these questions we will inevitably find ourselves travelling along the road to greater technique and artistry without having to believe too much of our own rhetoric.

Hi Liz

I think the definition of a choral director (actually any musical director) should be as you've said, someone who "helps the performers sound their best". And I would add "by any means possible". That will depend on the director, the singers/ musicians, the context, etc. etc. But I don't think it can be taught easily as it is often too prescriptive.

If you use 'unorthodox' or even 'wrong' methods to get a great sound out of your singers, then hooray for you!

Interestingly, my definition of 'common sense' is all about intuition and NOT logic!

By the way, I'd love a way of subscribing to the comments so I can be informed if someone else leaves a comment on the same post. Is there a way?

From the Front of the Choir

Hi Chris,

Thanks for your comment and suggestion, and I've mentioned the latter to my webmaster to add to the development list. He's been quite busy on another project just recently, but we're hoping to introduce a few new enhancements here in the coming weeks, so it was the perfect time to ask. (Going beyond intuition there, indeed - let alone common sense ;-)


How wonderfully provocative!
I have discovered through the years, that we can either stifle or encourage sound from our singers with very small changes in our gesture, whether it is for a breath, a phrase, a dynamic, an onset of tone or a release.

Slightly tangentially (but with a relevance I'll get into in a mo), the statement 'common sense is all about logic' is fascinating. I think that in itself is a folk understanding which turns out to be quite false on investigation! It's logical, but according to principles which aren't particularly objective - the only objectivity is in that those principles are quite pervasive socially. To someone who doesn't know those principles, 'common sense' isn't. :)

I'm very quickly reading Malcolm Gladwell's 'Blink' at the moment which is very relevant - his main message is that intuition wins over objectively systematic logic, but that's because the intuition is based on acquired principles which happen to work very well. Which is to say that there certainly is a 'common sense' of conducting and that it's acquired, practised, and made fluent.

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