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Choir Decoder: The Mystery of Conducting

Updated: Jan 18

In this edition the newsletter launches a new feature called Choir Decoder, aimed at exploring how Nova Voce works. We interview Brian Crocker, co-Artistic Director, about the art of conducting.

It is one of the great oddities of choral and orchestral music that the most important figure in any live performance stands front and center with their back to the audience, making no sound whatsoever, but simply waving their arms in the air.“A good conductor ought to be a good chauffeur,” said Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff.

We asked our own co-artistic director Bryan Crocker what it was like to drive the Nova Voce jalopy – er, limousine – and whether he could shed any light on the opaque craft of conducting:

Bryan, what’s going on when you’re standing there conducting a performance?

It’s called interpretation. When you open up a piece of music you look at the time signature – is it in 4, in 3, in 6/8? You look at the dynamics – is it quiet, medium, loud? Are there accents? Is it martial versus smooth and legato? We’re giving all these indications to the choir with our arms, our fingers and our expression.

Ok, but how much of what you’re trying to communicate does the choir understand?

Well hopefully they’re watching!

Hasn’t the choir rehearsed all this stuff already? Why do you still need to tell them during the performance?

Ha! Well, for a variety of reasons – because they haven’t learned it. Or because of nerves during the performance. Even just moving to a different venue can affect the choir. For example there might be a different sound, and they’re not hearing what they heard in their rehearsal space, so their comfort level is to embed themselves back into the music.

The size of the venue, doing mixed order formation of the choir versus section order, the location of the piano –  all of that can play a role, and conductors need to guide the choir through that.

Speaking of the piano, are you conducting the accompanist also?

100 percent. Probably more so than the singers.

What would happen if you suddenly disappeared in the midst of a song being performed?

There are some songs that we actually get in the way of. If there’s a song that is fast, fairly repetitive and doesn’t have lots of tempo changes, then once the choir learns the notes and they’re up to speed, I would say that having the conductor there just wildly waving their arms is of no use. Just let the choir sing. But that’s not the case with every piece – if a song slows down or changes tempo or rhythm, you need the conductor to do that.

What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you as a conductor?

I get lost. It happens. Sometimes I think I know a piece better than I do and then I get lost and I’m panicking trying to find where I’m at. Meanwhile the choir’s still singing.

You also have to be aware when you can hear something strange going on with the choir or the accompanist – that’s happened too – and you’re trying to figure out how to save the song. Conductors have to think on the spot.

Thanks for letting us put you on the spot, and for clarifying some of the mystery behind conducting.

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