Sunday, May 20, 2007

How many conductors does it take to lead a choir?

It dawned on me recently that my job as musical director of the women’s ensemble Minor Chords is to make myself redundant! I research, arrange and teach a variety of songs to the group, but there are only 11 singers, so when it comes to performance, in theory, they shouldn’t need a conductor. My reasoning is that with a group of this size it would encourage the singers to really pay attention to each other and work as a team rather than focusing on me. Also, on a very practical level, since the group is so small, I feel very conspicuous standing in front of them and believe that I often block them from the audience’s view.

However, the group as a whole seem reluctant to let me go! I wonder if this is just because they are used to me conducting and haven’t yet developed the necessary skills to “lead” themselves, or does size matter? Is there a minimum size of singing group below which a conductor is simply not needed (at least not one who stands out the front and waves their arms)? Or to ask a slightly different question: how big can a group get without having someone lead them out front?

I have seen several examples recently which have made me think. Although I didn’t see them personally, the Russian Ensemble Hermitage have recently toured. The ensemble consists of six men, all very accomplished with years of opera and conservatory training behind them, and yet one of them acts as conductor. On the other hand, I recently saw Northern Harmony on tour with 14 singers and they had no conductor out front. One individual is usually responsible for giving a starting note, but different individuals “lead” from where they happen to be standing. It might simply be to count in, or they may subtly move their hand to keep the song in time.

Another group I saw last year, The Shout, had about a dozen singers on stage. Their musical director Orlando Gough often sings with them, but when he’s not, he simply sits in the auditorium watching rather than conducting. The trio that I used to sing with had no conductor. I used to give the starting notes, but we used to watch and listen to each other very closely to keep time and tune.

At the other extreme, I know of two large community choirs (the Manchester Community Choir and the Gasworks Choir) who have had two conductors/ leaders. The two leaders also run the rehearsals jointly.

So maybe with a group of just 11 it is possible to go either way: with or without a conductor. But is one way better? Does a conductor mean a better, tighter performance? Or does not having a conductor lead to a more accomplished, together group who are really listening to and paying attention to each other?

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Chris Rowbury


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