Mortimer Music

Mark Mortimer : Musician : Conductor : Writer : Piano Tutor


As I spend much of my time conducting choirs, I thought that I should offer some thoughts on the relationship between a conductor and his/her choir. I must admit that some of my ideas have been inspired by a recent workshop on this very subject with Patrick Russill, Director of Choral Studies at the Royal Academy of Music.

The most important factor which faces all choral directors, when faced with their choir, is how to produce a beautiful sound. Most choral singing, with the exception of some contemporary and non-western styles, requires a certain 'beauty' of sonority.

However, many choirmasters, with no doubt good intentions, fall into the trap of trying to recreate, with their own choirs, the sonority of famous choirs which they have heard either in performance or recording.

You may hear, for example, "I want my choir to sound like King's College Cambridge, or the Philharmonia Chorus in the glory days of Wilhelm Pitz, or the BBC Singers etc...".

The simple reality, faced by most of us, is that it ain't going to happen.

Firstly, it is unlikely that we will have the quality of voices at our disposal to attempt it in the first place. Although, I would also say, perhaps controversially, that a 'good' choir does not even require 50% of its members to be 'good' singers; in the opposing senses of having either naturally pleasant or properly trained voices.

Secondly and most importantly, any choir, whatever the quality of individual voices within it, can produce a beautiful sound. And to create this 'sound' is totally down to the person in front waving his/her arms in the air.

I say 'waving his/her arms in the air' because this is genuinely what most people think conductors do! But I can assure that waving your arms in the air is a pretty useless exercise in itself and I will attempt to illustrate why.

I regret having to bring myself into it; but I began my conducting training with orchestras and not choirs. I admit to being carried away with the idea that orchestral conductors wear polo neck shirts, have swanky hair styles and produce beautiful gestures to illicit that perfect chord in the strings.

This so called 'territory which goes with the job' may be of interest to those that believe conducting to be a mysterious and glamorous art, but utter nonsense in terms of how you get a decent sound, good intonation, good annunciation and a whole host of other factors out of your ensemble, whether it be a choir or orchestra.

It was a long time before it finally dawned on me that conductors are the only people on stage who do not produce a sound. Therefore, it is my job to create that sound, but how?

Firstly, conductors should know how to create that sound by gesture alone and not via a million words of explanation. I have given up on offering the choir such meaningless suggestions as 'Please sing that bit more beautifully'. The blank faces stare back at you in exasperation as though to say 'How!?'

So if it is to be gesture alone, which signals are useful and which are not? I realise, that as far as conductors are concerned, we live in an age of jumpers, incessant knee-benders and wild gesticulators. These all amount to technical deficiencies which unsettle the choir, lead to poor ensemble and a general nervosity in the sound, often resulting in poor intonation.

A myriad of incoherent gestures are confusing enough to professionals, used to many different styles, let alone amateurs. Therefore, the good choral director, should, without compromising their passion for and desire to communicate the music, keep their gestures clear, calm and coherent.

The final thing, often talked about is that conductors must have 'personality' or 'charisma'. These are important qualities, but there are plenty of people with them who would make moderate conductors.

'Charisma', in the musical sense, is far more important; by which I mean the ability to communicate the love and authority of the music to the choir by a process of osmosis, some may even say 'telepathy'.

The job of the choral director is to make the fifty or so human beings assembled on a wet Monday night, forget the bland realities of everyday life and join in the communal and prehistoric sense of ecstasy that is collective singing.

Mark Mortimer, September 2006

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