Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Does your choir really need a conductor (and if so, how many)?

This is an updated version of a post which first appeared as How many conductors does it take to lead a choir? in May 2007

I used to run a small women’s choir of 12 singers. One day it dawned on me that my job was to make myself redundant.

Invisible conductor

I researched, arranged and taught a variety of songs to the group each week. But when it came to performance, I thought they didn’t need me to conduct them.

do you really need a leader out front?

With a small group, not having a conductor encourages the singers to really pay attention to each other and to work as a team rather than focusing on me out front. Also, I feel very conspicuous standing in front of them and often block the singers from the audience’s view.

But the group as a whole were reluctant to let me go.

I wondered if this was because they were used to me conducting so hadn’t yet developed the necessary skills to “lead” themselves. In a later reincarnation of the group, I spent a lot of time focusing on group performance skills and gradually spent less time each concert conducting them. Finally, I ducked out entirely. I had been planning it, but an opportunity arose that I couldn’t pass up.

We had a gig coming up and I became ill. I hoped I’d get better in time, so didn’t bother to say that I might not make it. As the gig approached I realised that I wouldn’t recover in time. I knew the singers were ready to do a performance by themselves, so left it to the very last minute before telling them. It was then too late to pull out of the gig! Of course, they pulled the whole thing off amazingly well. It was a big boost to their confidence and made them realise that they didn’t need anybody out front.

Eventually, other work commitments meant that I stopped leading the group, but they have continued to perform regularly with no leader.

size matters

Is there a size of 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 which have made me think. Although I haven’t seen them personally, the Russian Ensemble Hermitage often tour the UK. 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 around 15 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 have seen is The Shout who had about a dozen singers on stage. Their musical director Orlando Gough often performs 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 in time and in 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 12 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?

What do you think?


Chris Rowbury's website:


Chris Rowbury


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