UESTION FOR CONDUCTORS: Are you aware of your legs? It’s easy to forget about them entirely while you’re on the podium because you’re busy keeping time, cueing entrances, and perhaps singing along with your choir. But your legs are more important than you might think.
Before we go any further, allow me to lay out my conducting credentials, which won’t take long: I took a one-semester Elements of Conducting class at music school in the mid-1990s.
Like many of my fellow church choir directors, I was a well-trained singer who was pressed into duty as a conductor to fill a void (it’s actually a great story). As a result, I’m largely self-taught. I try to soak up as much conducting technique as I can through books, articles, and videos.
There are some wonderful resources out there for student conductors. But when you’re learning from a book rather than a person, it’s easy to fixate on the raw facts of conducting and become mechanical in your execution. Elementary conductor training tends to focus on baton technique, beat patterns, and the architecture of gestures. It’s tempting for self-taught conductors to think that as long as we know how to execute a 2-pattern, 3-pattern, and 4-pattern clearly enough, we’re good to go. (Besides, how many choir members actually watch us?)
But slavish adherence to patterns can limit our expressiveness. And overemphasizing our arms, shoulders, and hands can make us oblivious to the rest of the body. Why does it matter? Because a lack of integration between body parts can look tense, which comes across as nervousness and inhibits the sound of the ensemble. When you look tight, they’ll sing tight.
A Simple Way to Break Free
To free us from this pitfall, famed choral conducting pedagogue James Jordan preaches a gospel of body awareness. He emphasizes the importance of remaining aware of our core, promoting it as a key to expressive technique. He even encourages conductors to practice while sitting on a Swiss ball—the kind used in certain types of exercise.
Once we’ve gained greater body awareness, we can truly engage the whole body in each gesture. This doesn’t mean we’ll make superfluous movements with other body parts every time we lift an arm. But we should never move an arm in isolation while holding the rest of the body rigid. Instead, it’s best to let the rest of the body move naturally along with the arm.
Learn from Two Master Conductors
There’s a great demonstration of this principle on YouTube. The five-minute video below features a young conductor receiving live feedback from James Jordan and legendary wind ensemble conductor Eugene Migliaro Corporon while conducting a band. You can see for yourself that this young man has clean, crisp conducting technique. You’ll also notice that he is not aware of his legs—they’re like a tripod holding up his body. So even as you’re following the gestures of his upper half, something seems to be missing.
I can laugh with this conductor (and certainly not at him) because I know if it were me on the podium with those two luminaries watching, I would get ripped apart twice as badly. But we can all learn from this video. We must not forget about any body parts—especially parts as big as the legs—while we’re conducting.
As Dr. Jordan mentions in the video, we also must avoid “holding on” with the neck as our choir begins singing—a bad habit I have yet to break. I believe “holding on” and forgetting about the legs come from a similar place. Both indicate an intense focus on a goal rather than an openness to the singers and a positive acceptance of the music they’re offering at that moment.
There are far worse things a church choir conductor can do: antagonize and belittle his singers, waste rehearsal time, program inappropriate music, and fight with the clergy. But becoming oblivious to certain body parts is a subtle error that can sap the beauty of the music.
Are you aware of your legs?