A Chorister’s Guide to Keeping Conductors in Line

The basic training of every singer should, of course, include myriad types of practical and theoretical emphases. One important area which is often neglected, however, is the art of one-upsmanship. The following rules, extracted from one of the foremost sources of vocal wisdom on the Internet (see below), will guide you as you develop the proper relationship between singer and conductor:

1. Never be satisfied with the starting pitch. If the conductor uses a pitch-pipe, make known your preference for pitches from the piano and vice-versa.  Be sure to hum the pitch aloud.

2. Complain about the temperature of the rehearsal room, the lighting, crowded space, and of a draft. It’s best to do this when the conductor is under pressure.

3. Bury your head in the music just before cues, and throughout every rehearsal and performance.

4. Ask for a re-audition or seating change. Ask often. Give the impression you’re about to quit. Let the conductor know you’re there as a personal favor, and offer subtle reminders about how valuable you are.

5. Insist on group precision.  Raise your hand often to clarify whether each break is to be an eighth note, a full quarter, or some other variable.  Make sure the conductor knows that your score is fully marked, making his or her job just window dressing.

6. Loudly clear your throat during pauses (tenors are trained to do this from birth). Quiet instrumental interludes are a good chance to blow your nose.

7. Check in:  Long after a passage has gone by, ask the conductor if your C# was in tune. This is especially effective if you had no C# or were not singing at the time.

8. Use your pencil.  At dramatic moments in the music (which the conductor is emoting), be busy marking your music so that the climaxes will sound empty and disappointing.

9. Timing is everything.  Wait until well into a rehearsal before letting the conductor know that you don’t have the music.

10. Look at your watch frequently. Shake it in disbelief occasionally.  Tap one foot throughout the last seven minutes of rehearsal to help the conductor wrap things up.  Whenever possible, start packing up during this period, or for more impact, go to #15.

11. When possible, sing your part either an octave above or below what is written. This is excellent ear-training for the conductor. If he hears the pitch, deny it vehemently and claim that it must have been the combination tone.

11. Tell the conductor, “I can’t find the beat.” Conductors are frequently sensitive about their “stick technique”, so challenge it regularly.

12. Offer your own knowledge.  If you are singing in a language with which the conductor is the least bit unfamiliar, ask her as many questions as possible about the meaning of individual words. If this fails, ask her about the pronunciation of the most difficult words. Occasionally, say the word twice and ask her preference, making sure to say it exactly the same both times. If she remarks on their similarity, give her a look of utter disdain and mumble under your breath about the “subtleties of inflection”.

13. Offer additional resources.  Ask the conductor if he has listened to the von Karajan recording of the piece. Imply that he could learn a thing or two from it. Also good: ask, “Is this the first time you’ve conducted this piece?”

14. If your articulation differs from that of others singing the same phrase, stick to your guns. Do not ask the conductor which is correct until backstage, just before the concert.

15. Find an excuse to leave the rehearsal about 15 minutes early so that others will become restless and start to fidget.

We’ve all used one or more of these techniques at some point (right?), but put the effort into building them into solid habits.  Make every effort to take the attention away from the podium and put it on you, where it belongs!

Adapted, with tongue firmly in cheek,
from www.ahajokes.com.


Originally published in The Links #140, 4/24/2009


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