Conducting pattern, part 1

by kattiewampus

This fall, I stepped out of my comfort zone and into one of the most terrifying roles I’ve ever taken on: church choir director.

It seemed like a deceptively small time commitment: we only rehearse once a week. By the end of December, we will have performed only 5 songs. Even so, it has been an incredibly challenging season of trying to find my pattern as a first-time choir director. Especially since my conducting experience boils down to one semester’s worth of a Basic Conducting class that I took in college. And that was four years ago. And while I’ve been singing in various choirs for, well, as long as I can remember, it turns out that the roles of choir singer and choir director are not interchangeable. It’s like telling a student, “Okay, you’ve been in the classroom setting as a student for a long time. Therefore you are qualified to be a teacher.” While some people may have more of an innate ability to step into that role and translate their experiences accordingly, the mere fact of having been a student does not necessarily qualify one to be a teacher. Thus, the mere fact of having been a lifelong choir member did not, in my opinion, qualify me to be a choir director.

I took on my new role with a weird mixture of ambition and reluctance. I had these grandiose ideas about what I would accomplish with the choir: we would be singing sacred choral works in Latin and deeply soulful spirituals. Our accompaniment would always be a live musician: we would never sing with a track. We would do more a cappella pieces. The choir would be encouraged to practice rehearsal etiquette – things like showing up to rehearsal on time, not talking when the director is talking, not providing a running commentary every time we stopped singing, always bringing a pencil and a bottle of water to rehearsal. In my vision for the choir, we were going to sing beautiful, rich, complex music and function like a well-oiled machine.

Ah, how preciously ignorant I was – how adorably naive!

The first rehearsal is a very vague, distant memory for me. I remember feeling very disorganized, very clueless, and babbling somewhat disconnectedly about Palestrina and motets and where the term “a cappella” originated. I remember that I felt more comfortable talking about the music than actually trying to rehearse it, which suggested to me that maybe a career as a music professor was more suited to me than I had once thought. During that first rehearsal, I forcibly experienced what I already knew to be true: that I was in WAY over my head and desperately needed some guidance.

I sought out Mr. D, my first college choir director, with a desperate plea for help. Shortly thereafter, I was in his office listening to his advice about running rehearsals. That meeting made a huge difference in how I structured my rehearsals moving forward. I felt empowered. Mr. D’s suggestions were helpful and easy to implement. Suddenly I felt in control. Still clueless. Still inexperienced. But I had a road map now.

Even so, I dreaded rehearsals. The worst thing about rehearsals was that, even after getting through one, I couldn’t rest easy – I would have to do it all over again the following week. Rehearsals were frustrating. Concepts didn’t stick. We didn’t make progress as quickly as I would have liked. I worried that the choir was bored because we kept drilling the same things out of necessity. I was intimidated to be under the scrutiny of 16 pairs of eyes every week, watching me fumble my way through directing while trying to pretend that I was totally competent, even though I felt completely inadequate. It seemed like there was inevitably at least one point during every rehearsal when I either wanted to break down in tears or throw my hands up, declare that I was quitting, and walk out. It was hard not having an accompanist on a consistent basis: my accompanist is a wonderful musician and an excellent collaborative artist, but also a very busy wife and mother who works full-time. Consequently, she had very limited availability for rehearsals: sometimes she was there for the first half, sometimes for the second half, sometimes not at all. I had her schedule in advance, so it wasn’t a guessing game. But the days when she could not make it at all were hard. On top of that, the choir attendance was on a rotating basis. Every week it seemed like different people had to miss for various reasons. Because of the volunteer, low-pressure, minimal time commitment nature of the choir, I quickly discovered that I was powerless to enforce any sort of consistent attendance without feeling like a bully. So, I never knew exactly who would be showing up each week, or how many people were technically in the choir. At our scheduled rehearsal time every week, I would simply cross my fingers and hope that enough people would show up to hold a viable rehearsal. And they always did – within the first 15 minutes or so.

We spent the first month of rehearsals working on an arrangement of “Tantum Ergo.” It was sacred, it was Latin, it was a cappella – I thought it was perfect. There was only one slight problem: although it was musically repetitive, even so, the intervals were challenging and counter-intuitive. It was not accessible for the choir. They were making progress on it, but after a month’s worth of rehearsing, it was still not clicking yet, and we hadn’t even started to learn the Latin. Then, there arose a bigger problem. An objection was raised regarding the content of the song – that it was not appropriate for an Orthodox Presbyterian church. So, I consulted our pastor, who is also my boss in the context of my choir director role, for his approval. He explained to me that the song was, in fact, not suitable for performance in our church service because of fundamental doctrinal objections to the implications of the words in their interpretation of the sacrament of Communion. This necessitated a complete about-face and a scramble on my part to find a less controversial piece that would be easy enough for the choir to learn in a month, as we were one month away from our first scheduled date to sing. We ended up learning an arrangement of “‘Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus” that I had fallen in love with when I was in the church choir in high school. It was lovely, it was fairly straightforward, it was safe.

The choir’s first performance was on November 3. After two months of rehearsing, and church members repeatedly asking, “So, when is the choir going to sing?” I necessarily felt the pressure of my directing debut. Dr. S, one of my other college choir directors, has a phrase that she uses to describe the sort of eleventh hour rise-to-the-occasion effect that happens on performance days. I can’t remember what the phrase was exactly, but I definitely saw it manifest itself in my choir during our first performance. Interestingly, I experienced the phenomenon myself in my conducting. I suddenly felt “on” – I was focused, I was aware of what cues I needed to give, I was expressive, and I was smiling. (I have a really hard time smiling when I direct. It’s hard to do it naturally throughout a piece, without one’s facial muscles freezing into a grimace-grin or without appearing to have a spastic jaw muscle. Also, during actual performances, my mouth gets very dry. When that happens, the corners of my lips stick to my teeth when I try to smile and I’m convinced I look ridiculous so then I start making weird faces trying unstick my lips from my teeth and probably end up looking even more ridiculous. Fellow choir directors – please tell me I’m not the only one who has this dilemma.)

But I’m getting sidetracked. The point is that I felt like I was really connecting musically with the choir and it was exhilarating. Yes, “exhilarating” is actually the word that I used to describe my first time directing the choir in a performance setting. In spite of the weekly trial of facing my fears at each rehearsal and working through my insecurities and pushing forward even when I didn’t think I was doing a good job, those moments of directing the choir, making music with the choir during our Sunday service, suddenly made all of the difficulties leading up to that day worth the struggle. It made me excited for what we could accomplish together. We had another performance scheduled for later that month, followed a few weeks later by a Sunday morning performance, and then the Christmas program.

I was feeling ambitious on behalf of my choir. Until I actually counted up the number of rehearsals we had left.