Monday, March 19, 2012

A cappella, Conductors, and The Godfather

A very important class that all choral/general music majors should have in their 4 year curriculum is choral conducting.  The art of conducting helps the aspiring choral teacher prepare a choir for a performance, interpret the music artistically, and work together as an ensemble.

This begs the question: Does an a cappella group need a conductor?
If you are a vocal percussionist (like I pretend to be) and you are reading this, the answer is probably “No, and I’m insulted that you would even suggest this. Let me express this in drum language: Dm, ts, pfft, pfft, psh, dm dm!” (For those of you who don’t know drum language, this is a very offensive phrase…)

If you are the musical director of an a cappella group (like I pretend to be) and you are reading this, the answer is probably “Yes! I want full control of the music! Snarl, growl, grumble!” (This is better imagined if you picture drool dripping from their enormous, grotesque fangs).

While this caricature of the ticked off vocal percussionist and seven headed dragon known as the musical director are both fictional and purely for humor’s sake, they raise a good argument on whether a contemporary a cappella group needs a conductor. Let’s look at both sides:

Conductors? We don’t need no stinkin’ conductors!

The primary driving force of almost every a cappella song is rhythm. Rhythm is the priority and musicians should take great care to preserve a steady rhythmic tempo. Without rhythm, your vocal percussionist and walking bass line would be useless. If your vocal percussionist is good (and we only hope that he/she is), he/she can probably keep a steady tempo without much help. In fact, good vocal percussionists can and should be called “human metronomes.”  With all this beat keeping going on, why is the conductor waving his/her arm like they are chasing a particularly annoying bee?

The purpose of the conductor is simple: Be the visual interpretation of the music. Nothing else. A conductor must do more than keep a beat- a conductor must give his/her choir musical information using only his/her hands and body language. How much musical information does an a cappella group need to know that hasn’t already been rehearsed? If you’re a cappella group needs to be reminded to go softer during the bridge, maybe the problem isn’t that you need a conductor, but maybe the problem is that you are not rehearsing enough. Countless times I have seen members of an a cappella group waving their arms as if they are about to take off in flight, and I pray that they finally achieve the American dream of flying like Superman, just so I have something to look forward to in the future, but it probably isn’t going to happen.

Waving your arms up and down during an entire piece is a control problem.  You, as a director, are sending your group the message that “they are not trustworthy to handle music on their own.” Name one professional a cappella group that has ever conducted a piece…Go ahead…I’ll wait…

That’s right. They don’t exist (exceptions to the rule probably exist, but I’m trying to make a convincing point here…indulge me).

Please, directors. If the beat is steady and the rhythm is driving the piece forward, which 90% of the time it is, stop waving your arms. Unless you are very close to human flight. In which case, tell me how you do it.

Conductors? Of course we need a conductor!

Entrances. Exits. Pieces without a tempo that resemble a ballad style (Hide and Seek is a perfect example). How does your group handle entrances and exits together? Maybe they need a visual cue to help bring them in. Cue the conductor!

Let’s be clear. My radical philosophy is that a conductor and someone who rehearses a choir are two very different things. There are many conductors, most more famous and more esteemed than I will ever become, that heartily disagree. But they’re probably not reading this blog, nor do they have a membership to CASA. So I’m going to keep talking until someone puts a horse head on my bed with a baton sticking out of his nose.

A conductor is much like a dancer. They have a unique set of skills that allow them to convey musical information by moving their hands and expressing information in their face. A teacher, also known as a musical director, does not necessarily have to have these skills. They must require a different set of skills- how to run an effective rehearsal using oral and verbal communication. A conductor cannot teach you to sing a correct note- no amount of hand signals in the world is going to help you if you don’t know what the right pitch is. This is something a music director must fix in rehearsals.

Let’s look at some more examples. Have you ever seen a show choir director conduct a show choir during a competition? Umm…no. Not even Glee does this. So is Mr. Shue a conductor or a music director? I’ll tell you this- he’s definitely not both.

Before you conduct, ask yourself the most important question- Does your group need it? If you truly think they do, whether it’s because they are beginners, or because there is a particularly difficult spot that needs a little leadership on stage, then do it. But if you’re just going to keep a beat, stand out of the way and let the vocal percussionists percuss.

Don’t make the vocal percussionist angry. They will put a horse head in your bed with a drumstick sticking out of the horse’s nose.

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