Dual Role

I was lurking on another site and saw a piece of some interest, a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of playing a dual role as conductor and accompanist. It’s personally relevant because I bounce between these roles on occasion. Most of the time, I’m fortunate to have a fine accompanist (when she’s not involved with the local college) so I can attend to improving my craft as conductor and getting I nice sound out of my singers. But often I’m at the piano. So the question is: wave a left or right hand, make facial expressions, to just pray?

In my first full-time music ministry gig, I had a thirty-voice choir. I waved my hands on everything, and I no longer think that was the right approach. In my new parish, every-week acclamations don’t and shouldn’t need me to conduct. So I step into the instrument section and play. (Of all musical things, I like playing the best.)

Some of the comments at CMAA were interesting:

… (working as both is) certainly better than trying to work with both a music director and a priest, this way you’ll have more control.

Speaking spiritually, sometimes it’s better to cede control. But I’m aware of advantages to getting the music exactly the way one wants it.

Currently I’m just the choir director and not organist. We are capable of so much more subtlety and musicality in our music due to having a director to cue dynamics and more. I work with a fantastically talented organist.

Love this comment. One person to a role really does enhance the music. Jimmy Page notwithstanding.

Conductors are highly overrated.

I’d agree here, too. I’m aware of a few ensembles that don’t have a conductor. Usually they consist of excellent musicians. My wife was in the mood for Vivaldi earlier today and I brought up this concert video of Julia Fischer with a small string ensemble. No conductor was one of the first things she noticed. With people from this effort, as you would expect.

A few more things come to mind:

Coaching and training one’s singers as leaders and conductors is not a bad way to go. When I was in grad school, I met a local choir director who encouraged her people to suggest pieces and then learn the music well enough to conduct them. She said she got to sing in the alto section about a third of the time. The motivational factor for keeping a choir’s attention might have intensified. Walking a mile in the director’s shoes might well make for choristers more attentive when they’re back with their singing.

Catholics already have the model for multiple roles wrapped up into one office: the parish priest. Some guys are excellent at administration, human resources, teaching, homiletics, liturgical presidency, counseling, hearing confessions, visiting the sick, and even mowing the lawn. But do they have to be? Is it good that they are expected to be?

Back to music: what do you think about the dual role, especially if you’ve been the recipient, beneficiary, or victim of it?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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2 Responses to Dual Role

  1. Liam says:

    From my experience, I’d prefer a music director who has technical mastery of choral singing and vocal production with the support of a competent organist. I am not a fan of direction by an instrumentalist who does not have mastery of choral singing and vocal production – the problem of thinking more through fingers than voice. (It’s not a problem unknown in the “classical” repertoire, but at least the classical composers were much more self-aware in that regard than some contemporary composers who clearly write from the keyboard appear to be….)

    I trained for 10 years as a horn player; then I picked up voice (horn playing at least lays a good foundation for vocal sound production) and sang in choirs (with a 3 yr and a 2 yr intermission) over 30 years. As a horn player, I became used to the skill of ensemble leadership (whether in a brass or wind quintet or other similar group) – leadership rotates, and everyone cultivates a group way of breathing et cet. This can carryover into vocal work, of course; I did have the pleasure of several years in a large (~3 dozen+) choir where we had a strong ensemble sense that the director knew how to elicit and empower. (And it helped immensely to have a repertoire with relatively few works that were mediocre, banal or worse.)

  2. Liam says:

    PS: One US sacred music ensemble worthy of note is the Green Mountain Project (which is also known as Blue Heron in another guise). They are the only US ensemble I’ve beheld in person that captures fullest dimensions of music as an ensemble – if you ever have a chance of going to their performances of Monteverdi, run, don’t walk:

    They are the closest US group I’ve beheld to the platinum standard: Les Artes Florissants, under the direction of William Christie. (I am not a fan of the concert hall here, but the video gives a good sense of the ensemble’s personality):

    I had the privilege of seeing them offer Charpentier’s setting of Christmas Midnight Mass (Messe de minuit) at dusk in a candle-lit Jesuit church (Charpentier and the French Jesuits were a liturgical thing back in the day….), as I eventually lay on the floor of the organ loft and felt the vibrations of the perfect ensemble pitches in a way I have never before or since. The thing is, with both this ensemble and ones like Green Mountain Project, you really have this group organism that’s something beyond a symphony orchestra, as sublime as symphony orchestras can be (and I write that having seen a number of world-class orchestras in great acoustical venues.)

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