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Better conducting: directors must learn both introspection and "outrospection"

June 6, 2018

As featured in The Harmonizer.

Introspection and "Outrospection"

I have recently begun to notice that when my students—whether within barbershop, at the university, or in the music education world—come to me for help with their conducting, they have not developed two of the most critical skills that will unlock greater improvement in one’s conducting craft. I call these two characteristics “introspection,” and a term of my own invention, “outrospection.”

Introspection

Music directors need to have a good grasp on what is happening with their choruses. The major issues I hear barbershop chorus directors discuss are poor vowel choices, vowel unity, synchronization, and lack of musicality. Chorus directors: How many of you have been surprised at contest when the judges have pointed out any of the above issues during the post-contest evaluation? Have you been shocked when you’ve later watched the performance video? If so, you, as the director, would benefit from a crash course in “introspection.” Introspection is when a director chooses to be vulnerable to examine what part he or she plays in the ultimate musical product of the chorus. Below are introspective questions chorus directors may ask themselves that relate to the “major issues” listed above:

Do I really know how vowels are made?
Am I really listening to the sound the chorus is making?
Do I really know what it sounds like when vowels are matching?
Am I singing with the chorus?
Do I feel that my chorus never makes changes?
Are singers not making changes because I’m not explaining things in a way that makes sense?
Does my conducting have meaning, or am I just “swatting flies?”
Does each beat in my conducting have a preparation to its execution, which then leads to another preparation?
Do my beats have different weight and purpose for each, or are they all the same?
Do I realize that every gesture I make affects the sound of the chorus for good or ill?

These questions are only the beginning of the introspection phase. Conductors need to be frank with themselves and to ask even bigger questions about what they can do to become more introspective:

Be vulnerable and teachable. Find someone you trust who will speak truth in love to you, and don’t argue him or her. You don’t have the right to disagree until you’ve truly tried what she/he is suggesting.
Video capture yourself and watch the recording.
Make a list of the things you believe you have yet to learn.


“Outrospection”
Because “outrospection” is my own word, here is how I define it: It is critically observing how someone does something for the purpose of analyzing cause and effect. Every semester at the university, I require that my conducting students go into the community to observe two conductors in rehearsals. They then write an observation of what they saw, and I give them permission to be professionally pointed in their analysis. Now, I have seen many of these conductors in action, and I know that any student will observe behaviors that both reflect and conflict with what they have been learning. Yet, the observations I get back read as if they were press releases written by the conductors’ publicists. These students seem afraid to appear judgmental. Don’t be afraid to critically watch as many conductors as you can to discover how what they do either works or gets in the way. The positives and negatives you glean from critical observation will aid in your own improvement.

Things to look for:

Is there flexibility in the elbows and shoulders?
Is there tension in the hands and fingers?
Are all the beats given the same weight and force, or is there variation?
Does the conductor model good singing posture?
Do the conductor’s gestures invite the chorus to sing or demand the chorus to sing?
Do the conductor’s gestures use extraneous, unnecessary movements, or does each gesture have purpose and meaning?
Does the conductor move around the stage aimlessly, or is there purpose in every step?
Is the conductor there for the music or for him/herself?
If your eye is naturally drawn to the conductor, is it admiration or a distraction? Why?

It is of great importance to our progress as conductors that we include active, intelligent observation as an integral part of our development. Every conductor of every stripe and flavor takes something from each conductor observed. Be sure you are making the right choices for the right reasons using both introspection and outrospection. Oh, and be sure to come to the Directors College at Harmony University. CU at HU!

Dr. Don R. Campbell, (dcampbell@swu.edu)
Dean of Directors College at Harmony University