December 21, 2016

The Model Conductor
Dr. Jason Paulk, College and University R&R Chair for SWACDA
Director of Choral Activities, Eastern New Mexico University

The topic of the model conductor struck me as I began to teach a new semester of beginning conducting at my university. Most of the students in my class were second semester sophomores and were having their first “formal” conducting training. Although this was their first classroom conducting experience, it occurred to me that I had been tacitly teaching numerous lessons to each of them for more than three semesters, impressing upon them my “ideal” conducting technique—which they saw every time I conducted an ensemble in which they sang. Likewise, they had been learning, whether I planned for it or not, how I approached and planned each rehearsal, how I paced the musical learning for the semester, and how I interacted with individuals within the ensemble and with the ensemble as a whole. Furthermore, the students had been observing specific rehearsal techniques that they stored as effective, not necessarily because they felt that way, but because I approved the techniques by implementing them in our ensemble rehearsals. The trust our students grant us as their teachers should be considered seriously since they, as a rule, accept our actions as behavior that should be modeled.

My curiosity compels me
I must confess candidly that it is my curiosity rather than my scholarship in this area that compels me to share a few thoughts on the subject, after considerable reflection. Moreover, I am not “the model conductor,” but hope to continually become a more effective conductor and educator. As leaders of individuals in performance ensembles, many of whom aspire to identical leadership positions, conductors are constantly being viewed as models for their myriad actions, responses, and decisions. It is important to reflect on modeling effective conductor behaviors that enable student success in ensembles via expressive and aesthetically pleasing performances and benefit prospective music education and conducting students who are learning numerous lessons regarding teacher planning and organization, creating an effective learning environment, conducting gestures and rehearsal techniques.

It is likely that most ensemble conductors understand their role of artist, educator, and administrator. It may be beneficial to consider the many ways we as conducting professionals and artists convey those actions that are most important to us from the podium. These actions are certainly reflected by our performing ensembles and, in many cases, will be modeled by prospective conductors as their accepted modus operandi.

But it's even more than conducting gestures
If our goal is to efficiently maximize our effectiveness as conductors and educators, it would be wise to model the behavior—physical, musical, and otherwise—that we want our students to emulate. Another example comes to mind from the same semester of beginning conducting that I discussed earlier. After beginning the semester, I noticed that many students seemed to have difficulty conducting only one “prep” beat for the musical examples they were conducting. I had to ask myself, “Could this be because I model something different on the podium during rehearsal?” This was a turning point in the way I considered my role as a conducting teacher. Previously, I had considered the learning that took place in conducting class entirely separate from the learning that took place in the ensemble. The realization that all student learning is contextualized globally—through every action and interaction—and not isolated in chunks of information, totally altered my approach to rehearsal preparation. We all know that theory, ear training, music history, and other core musical knowledge is learned and reinforced in ensemble rehearsals; so, too is conducting, ensemble administration and numerous other behaviors.

Students gather many beliefs about the long-term and short-term effects and benefits of planning and rehearsal preparation through their observations of conductors. From beginning of the semester auditions, the introduction of repertoire, pacing of learning, performance preparation and semester wrap-up, conductors convey many ideas about the long-range thoughts, management, and implementation of thoughtful and educationally sound planning. Likewise, daily rehearsal strategies—beginning with warm-ups—convey either preparedness or a haphazard approach to learning. A well-organized rehearsal teaches our singers that we value our art form, their time, and the educational process. It is hoped that the model we provide will shape our students’ cognition (understanding) and ultimately their conation (doing) in a healthy and effective manner.1

Students also learn a great deal about creating a safe and open learning environment—one in which individuals feel valued, comfortable, and can take risks—from their own performance experiences. Our interactions with students before, during, and after rehearsal model appropriate or inappropriate professional interactions with individuals and with the group. If, for example, a conductor’s manner of dealing with an ensemble is harsh and critical, it should be assumed that students will perceive this as the effective or accepted way to interact with ensembles. This is often the case even when students do not particularly like being in the situation, since students will ultimately model what they know. On the other hand, if a student observes a caring, beneficent conductor who carefully considers the ensemble’s feelings and growth, it is likely that they will seek to model this behavior.

We do teach from the performance and during rehearsal
Our basic vocabulary of conducting gestures is universally understood amongst most musically educated individuals. As is seen frequently, however, even basic patterns vary widely from individual to individual. Sometimes, it is even apparent with whom someone has studied conducting by the look or shape of their gesture. This is not necessarily a negative point, although when one is conducting an ensemble it should be thoughtfully considered that many potential conductors are being imprinted with hundreds, and often thousands, of model conducting patterns in the course of a year. In actuality, it is a very positive fact that so much can be taught from the podium, regardless of the great responsibility is felt by the conductor.

An example may prove illustrative at this point. If a conductor employs a habitual gesture that is ineffective and has simply become part of that conductor’s “style”—for instance, a loopy third beat in the three pattern or an ictus that is consistently ahead of the beat—is it fair to impressionable students who observe an inefficient or possibly incorrect use of gesture daily? Before that student ever begins to study conducting in the formal sense, they have made numerous conductor evaluations and rehearsed that pattern hundreds, maybe thousands of times through the repetition of observation. It is likely that they will have to unlearn poor habits in order to achieve a textbook pattern when they do ultimately enroll in conducting class. It is now a personal goal to model the most effective gestural communication in order to elicit the most musical response from my ensembles, so that I may actually preach the message to my conducting students: “do what I say and what I do.”

The "professional conductor watcher" offers thoughts on the subject
My wife, who happens to be a professional coach/accompanist, often comments that she is a “professional conductor watcher.” No doubt, she has watched conductors for hundreds of thousands of hours while accompanying various clinics and rehearsals and always learns something new, constantly relating effective and ineffective techniques to me. Likewise, I have always been a careful observer of conductors, noting effective gestures that convey the perfect staccato articulation or the gesture that inspires me to sing the most supported forte. These models have made lasting impressions.

The students in our ensembles, whether taking written notes or not, recognize the same elements of gesture and record them in their memory. They recognize and will ultimately implement the same technique of simple “time beating” with no variation in dynamics, phrase shape, or articulation, if that is the model. Conversely, they will be the young conductors who inspire countless ensembles to musical performance through their artistic conducting if they learn by an effective example.

A scary thought...student conductors may mirror what you do
Never is the importance of modeling effective conducting and rehearsal techniques so apparent as when a teacher has a student conductor conducting an ensemble. It is so often the case that—for the teacher—this situation is like observing a mirror of one’s own conducting and rehearsal process. Does the student speak clearly and intelligibly? Do you? Does the student conductor prepare an entrance with a clear preparation gesture accompanied by the requisite breath? Do you? Does the conductor rehearse women together, men together, all-together in a pedantic and boring fashion? Do you? I think the point is clear: student conductors will model what they have observed, whether effective or ineffective. Much thought should be given to rehearsal procedure, along with the other elements discussed above. Students should not have to wait until they take a methods course to observe varied techniques for achieving vibrant and energized tonal production, blend and healthy intonation. They should have the opportunity to observe these techniques in action daily. No doubt, they already are keenly engaged in observing our behaviors, and in turn, rehearsing and conducting the symphonies, wind ensembles and choirs in their own minds.

To sum it up
Just as we model phrase shapes, ideal tone production and stylistic articulation for our ensembles, it is also vital for effective conductors to model appropriate rehearsal planning, community building, physical conducting gestures and rehearsal techniques. Our actions on the podium do not simply exist in the vacuum of rehearsal and performance, but as educational models that will be accepted, whether consciously or not, as the authoritative manner of operation for our student conductors. Therefore, it is exceedingly important that we, as conductors and educators, give great thought and preparation to how we may become the model conductor.

1 For an excellent resource about how to better understand our own and others’ actions, defined as conation, read Kathy Kolbe’s Conative Connection: Acting on Instinct .