Choral Artistry at Eastman

By Sara Jane Duffey, Chair, Performing Arts, Choral Music

This July I spent a week at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.  I was enrolled in the graduate level class, Choral Artistry, taught by Dr. William Weinert.  Some of my younger colleagues described it as a life-changing experience.  Participating in the class affirmed for them that this was what they wanted to do professionally during their lives.  There were also many of us who have been conducting for many years.  We were already doing what we love to do, but we were equally challenged and inspired. 

Each day seemed filled with apparent contradictions, stretching us mentally and physically.  If any of us had come into the class envisioning ourselves on a pedestal (podium), we were immediately, on the first day, knocked off of it with a lecture on how unimportant we are as conductors.  We are merely there to facilitate the music.  Below are some of the catch phrases of the week:

  • Show only what is necessary.
  • The right hand shows everything. The left hand shows everything else.
  •  Never underestimate your choir. (They will rise to meet you, or vice versa!)
  •  Keep a consistent tempo.
  •   Be expressive with the tempo.
  •  Stop conducting and just listen! (The conductor learns best from the choir in this state.)

We talked about the tools of conducting.  The most important tool is gesture; showing what we want to hear by the quality of those gestures.  If that is not working completely, the next most efficient tool is modeling.  Demonstrate the diction, vowel color, notes, phrasing, etc.  Sing and have the choir repeat back to you.  The least efficient tool is talking or lecturing.  Never speak more than 7 words at a time to your choir; you will lose their attention.  They are at the rehearsal to sing- not to listen to you talk!

True to Dr. Weinert’s theory, the class involved very little lecturing.  Fourteen students in the class took 15 minute turns on the podium conducting the class members combined with a professional choir. Before we arrived at Eastman, we were asked to thoroughly prepare 5 pieces to conduct,  as well as 12 more to sing.   With an X-acto knife, Dr. Weinert gently pointed out the worst of our habits.  One of mine was mouthing words with the singers.  I also learned a lot about moving gesture through space to keep the musical line connected. Each morning session was 3 hours. We learned as much from watching each other as from our own time on the podium.

Every day after lunch we had an hour and a half movement class taught by a wonderful Delacroze Eurhythmics instructor, Monica Dale.  It involved experiencing rhythm, tempo, meter and movement through time that I found fun, frustrating, exhausting and invigorating. I think it will improve my sense of gesture through time and space.  Quantum Physics anyone?

The last session of each day was a Vocal Pedagogy class taught by a master voice teacher and coach, Dr. Robert McIver.  He taught us some great vocal exercises, and had words of wisdom on vocal registration.  The last two days of this class, we took turns singing solo literature for each other.  I had not been personally coached in about twenty years, so it was a moving experience for me.  Another gentle X-acto knife!

An important part of the week for me was meeting this eclectic group of people of many different ages and experiences.  We bonded immediately and hung out socially most evenings. I guess all choral conductors are social creatures!  We even met for our own “master class”, conducting and giving feedback for each other the night before our final class. We have a group Facebook site where we have continued to check in with each other.  Being a conductor is a solitary job in some ways, and getting hands-on feedback in such a supportive atmosphere was an amazing experience and food for the soul.

After the final class on Friday, I was able to stay through the weekend, attending two more rehearsals conducted by Dr. Weinert.  We performed  a program of music which we had conducted and sung during the week.  For someone who says the conductor is not important, we followed his every move, knowing that the music is the important thing, as well as our coming together as a community to realize it.  

The following link is to a video of one of my sessions conducting “O Schone Nacht” by Brahams.

About Westtown School

Westtown School is a Pre-K through 12th grade Quaker, coed, college preparatory day and boarding school in West Chester, PA.
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