Tips from a Festival Conductor

Sally K. AlbrechtBy Sally K. Albrecht
Alfred Editor, Composer & Clinician

As I head out today to my third county choral festival in as many weeks, I thought about all of the different wonderful and magical experiences I have enjoyed as a conductor over the years. I usually guest direct from 6 to 10 such events each season. Here are some tips that have helped me along the way.

1. Select music early.

• I enjoy working with my host on music selection. It’s helpful if the host sends me programs from the previous 2-3 years, so I see what type of material has been selected in the past. I always enjoy chatting on the phone at this point, to see what was successful. I like to know the approximate number of singers (if a mixed group, how many on each voice part) and how many schools are represented. (If there’s a descant part, I’ll often say, “One singer per school may sing the descant.”)

• Will other groups be sharing our program? If so, then I always recommend a joint finale and/or opening selection.

• Are any instrumentalists available? That may alter my music choices.

• I generally send one or two possible programs for my host to select from, or say, “Here are two folk song arrangements. Pick one.” I make sure my music choices are current, in print, educational, inspirational, entertaining, challenging, yet accomplishable. I make sure we have an opener, a closer, then a variety in between, including: folk songs, spirituals, multicultural, classical, novelty, music song . . . . well, just something for everyone.

• My general rule is to select one song per hour of rehearsal. If I have a 6-hour rehearsal day, then 6 chorals should do it.

• Make sure each singer has a copy of music in his/her hands (no photocopies allowed), with a pencil handy for special markings. Even if the music is to be memorized, it’s often necessary to take another look!

2. Communicate.

• Keep communication lines open at all times. Be quick to respond to emails and/or phone calls. Let me know if there are definite times I need to anticipate breaks or lunch, or if that’s open to the flow of the day.

• Send hotel and rehearsal locations and information in plenty of time for me to mapquest the area.

• Make sure to put in writing all of the financial agreements—who pays for what, what receipts are needed, who is providing meals, etc.

• I make it a habit to send “Notes from the Director” with any special instructions for the music: things to look out for, are we singing cue-size notes, who sings the descant, will there be any solos to audition, etc.

• Let the conductor know what the mode of dress is for the concert. I’ll dress differently if singers are wearing robes than I will if singers are in jeans with a festival T-shirt!

3. Plan for the day.

• I always arrive with a plan for the day—what I want to get done in every 15-minute chunk of time. I often will let one voice section take a morning break while I rehearse with another section. Make sure there are adequate clean rest rooms nearby.

• Have enough risers set up, ready to go on stage, for the number of singers selected to participate. Anticipate 12 students per riser-secton (3-step risers plus floor). Younger students, perhaps, can fit up to 16 singers per riser section.

• Make sure that each student has a name tag. I like to see their first name, really big (so I can read it easily from afar). Teachers need name tags, too—full names. If it’s a 2-day festival, then collect the tags or have a second set available.

• I start with warm-ups, then perhaps a quick rehearsal of the opening or closing number. Then I enlist the teachers to help me get the students lined up by height and part, tallest 1st. No singer should be next to someone they already know. The goal is to form a new choir and make new friends!

• During rehearsals, make sure a few teachers are around, on hand, at all times.

• If instrumentalists are involved, decide on a specific time for them to rehearse so they don’t have to sit there all day with you. I generally request that they come mid-afternoon, then stay to play our final run-through with us.

4. The simple things that don’t go un-noticed.

• Have a great accompanist ready to go, who has prepared the music and understands how to accompany (that means, reads the mind of the guest conductor)! Make sure the piano has been tuned (and dusted off) recently.

• Have lots of water on hand, a podium (if needed), and a music stand that doesn’t wobble. Does the conductor need a microphone? And, if we’re all onstage, does that microphone have monitors on stage so the singers can hear my comments?

• Check the air temperature in the rehearsal area. Is it a place where we can work all day? Or is a second room needed for relief/change of venue?

• Have a tech person check that the lights in the auditorium are all in working order. Know how to turn the stage lights on and off, dim as needed. Same with the sound system.

• Let me know the plan for the actual concert. Who speaks when? Who introduces who? If there’s a list of “thank yous” that needs to be spoken, please do that before the concert begins or before the final number. I like to leave the audience with the sound of our music ringing in their ears!

Enjoy the special musical day you, your teachers, and your students will have. There’s just nothing like it!

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One response to “Tips from a Festival Conductor

  1. Hey Sally . It was great talking and laughing with you in NJ, Best of luck on your future endeavors.

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