HOW TO TRAIN CHURCH CHOIRS (3) – The role of the conductor

– Aurelio Porfiri

When talking of choirs we cannot avoid mentioning conductors, and rightly so: conductors can be the biggest strength or biggest weakness of every choir. I think that the role of a conductor is often misunderstood. People think that he is a sort of dictator who decides how the music should sound and has to be followed blindly by the choristers. No, the conductor is not a dictator, he is a facilitator. The most important characteristic of any conductor is not moving the arms to give the right tempo, but being able to listen. This is an important point. The result of interpretation is not given by one person imposed on 20, 30, 40 singers. Rather, it is the ability of the same person to challenge the energy of everyone in a single musical event.

Many times while sitting in a jury for choral competitions, one often hears colleagues saying that there are no bad choirs, only bad conductors. Quite true. Often the destiny of a choir is tied to the ability of a conductor in interpreting the role assigned to him or her. And this is even more true for church choirs, which cannot sing whatever they feel like but who have a special commitment to certain repertoires.

So how we can judge a good conductor for the church? First of all he or she has to be someone who has been chosen to be a conductor because of a real passion for choirs. It happens that there are people who use conducting to vent their personal frustrations in other areas of life, and thus turning the choirs into “victims” treated without respect. Of course a conductor has to be able to maintain discipline in the choir and this often means also raising his voice, becoming upset. It can happen and should be accepted as a part of the process for the improvement of the singers. But this does not have to become pathological; this should be just a part of the life of the choir. So the good conductor has a balanced character.

A conductor for a church choir should know well what the Church teaches about sacred music. This is also of fundamental importance. Sacrosanctum Concilium (115) says: “Great importance is to be attached to the teaching and practice of music in seminaries, in the novitiates and houses of study of religious of both sexes, and also in other Catholic institutions and schools. To impart this instruction, teachers are to be carefully trained and put in charge of the teaching of sacred music. It is desirable also to found higher institutes of sacred music whenever this can be done. Composers and singers, especially boys, must also be given a genuine liturgical training.” Even if conductors are not mentioned specifically, they should also be given a “genuine liturgical training.” Today of course this is more urgent than ever, because the quality of liturgical training leaves a lot to be desired, including in the seminaries.

Now, a very important principle is that what is relevant is what the church teaches in accordance with her Tradition. Nowadays priests are not so knowledgeable in Church music as they were decades ago, when the musical life in seminaries was flourishing. Already Pius XII, in the Musicae Sacrae Disciplina (1955) put a lot of emphasis in instruction to be able to perform  sacred music with dignity: “Great care must be taken that those who are preparing for the reception of sacred orders in your seminaries and in missionary or religious houses of study are properly instructed in the doctrine and use of sacred music and Gregorian chant according to the mind of the Church by teachers who are experts in this field, who esteem the traditional customs and teachings and who are entirely obedient to the precepts and norms of the Holy See. If, among the students in the seminary or religious house of study, anyone shows remarkable facility in or liking for this art, the authorities of the seminary or house of study should not neglect to inform you about it. Then you may avail yourself of the opportunity to cultivate these gifts further and send him either to the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in Rome or to some other institution of learning in which this subject is taught, provided that the student manifests the qualities and virtues upon which one can base a hope that he will become an excellent priest. In this matter care must also be taken that local Ordinaries and heads of religious communities have someone whose help they can use in this important area which, weighed down as they are by so many occupations, they cannot easily take care of themselves. It would certainly be best if in diocesan Councils of Christian Art there were someone especially expert in the fields of religious music and chant who could carefully watch over what is being done in the diocese, inform the Ordinary about what has been done and what is going to be done, receive the Ordinary’s commands and see that they are obeyed. If in any diocese there is one of these associations, which have been wisely instituted to foster sacred music and have been greatly praised and commended by the Sovereign Pontiffs, the Ordinary in his prudence may employ this association in the task of fulfilling responsibility. Pious associations of this kind, which have been founded to instruct the people in sacred music or for advanced study in this subject, can contribute greatly by words and example to the advance of sacred music. Help and promote such associations, venerable brethren, so that they may lead an active life, may employ the best and the most effective teachers, and so that, throughout the entire diocese, they may diligently promote the knowledge, love and use of sacred music and religious harmonies, with due observance of the Church’s laws and due obedience to Ourselves.”

So, we can see that this emphasis on instruction was already present in Pope Pius XII (and in all the other Popes as a matter of fact). Even if in the past the role of priests in being choir directors was strongly emphasized, today it is different. Indeed that was also the consequence of a certain clericalization of sacred music that started at least from the beginning of the 20th century. Before laypeople were also strongly involved as choir directors, singers and organists. Moreover, nowadays there is a shortage of priests, so it is much better that they are occupied with their pastoral duties, leaving to well-prepared laypeople the task of organizing musical activities for the Church.

Of course being well prepared in the liturgical requirements does not prevent in being well prepared also in music. Being musically prepared does not mean moving the arms in this or that way, but being able to correctly express what you want to communicate to the singers. The American choir director Rodney Eichenberger famously said that “what they see is what you get.” The meaning is that the choir reacts to what the conductor is doing. So if the conductor does not express “the musical message” properly, the choir will not react appropriately. Musical training does not mean only being instructed in the church musical tradition (one cannot have a good taste for sacred music if one doesn’t know the great musical Tradition of the Church) but also being able to organize rehearsals, making sure that their attendance is regular. And also, something that has to be remembered, one needs leadership abilities. A leader is not the bossy person, as we have said, but is the one that everyone recognizes as the point of reference. There are people who are naturally able to show this characteristic, others need training. If you are not naturally a leader, you may still develop some qualities that allow you to be respected by the singers to facilitate your work as a conductor. It is not certainly easy but nevertheless is very important. Choirs cannot improve if they don’t trust and respect their conductors. Acquiring this respect and this trust is maybe one of the most difficult and challenging tasks that conductors have to face. But even in the absence of natural leadership skills, something can be done.

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