In partnership with the University of Western Australia School of Music Summer Music Academy, ABODA WA presented the fifth Swing into Summer conducting clinic. This year, our guest clinician was the amazing and inspirational conductor, composer, arranger, adjudicator and music educator, Professor Rob McWilliams. Working with the talents of the UWASMA String Ensemble, the John Curtin College of the Arts Wind Orchestra 1 and the Churchlands Senior High School Wind Orchestra 1, Prof. McWilliams skilfully guided thirty-three participants of all levels of ability and conducting experience to become more effective musical directors.
Over the course of the six days of workshops, Prof. McWilliams shared a great many of his personal experiences, anecdotes, expert tips, techniques, approaches and solutions to help overcome some of the challenges that musical directors face with ensembles.
Here is small sample of Prof. McWilliams’ wealth of knowledge.
“What we do as conductors makes a difference.”
The standard conducting model is Play then Fix. E.g. Play louder here, softer there, etc. Conductors need to move to a better model, one which activates the students’ listening and makes students accountable for their playing.
“Get their ears in the game.”
Using reflective questioning, conductors should be training students to be good ensemble musicians rather than telling them how to play their parts.
“What do your ears tell you?”
Use warm-up activities that demand that students watch the conductor, require no notation and change elements of the music; tempo, tone, dynamics, articulation, etc in a way that’s never the same.
“One hundred beginner students at their first band camp rehearsal – Sounds like five lawn mowers at full bore”
The standards and language used in the first rehearsal set the tone for subsequent rehearsals.
Provide a clear message, stay on point and don’t talk too much. When people get nervous they talk more, filling in the silence with words. Prof. McWilliams suggests that directors speak about the navigation of the piece, but not much else before playing.
Most importantly, let students play. There is a direct correlation between student misbehaviour and amount of downtime (when students aren’t playing) during rehearsals.
“When the band is sensitive and responsive, you can do more with less.”
Run music in order from easiest to more challenging.
Try to push through the entire piece to develop sight reading skills. Quite often, students will be able to identify their own mistakes. Allow students the opportunity to fix them themselves.
Don’t focus on a tiny section for far too long. Students will end up off task very quickly.
When you believe the students are ready, try running a Monk rehearsal, one in which the conductor refrains from speaking throughout the entire rehearsal as it compels students to interpret purely non-verbal signals and gestures. Prof. McWilliams found that this significantly reduced student chatter as it became inappropriate for the students to talk and the rehearsal was calm and productive. It also required him to extend and develop his body language vocabulary to convey the meaning and direction of the music to his ensemble.
Fewer differences between a string ensemble and a wind ensemble than people may believe.
Have your string players play by breathing, feeling the phrases.
Everything we do as musicians should be connected to breath (singing is our first instrument).
The podium is an essential part of the conductor’s equipment. The extra height allows conductors to maintain good posture and correct technique and to be seen by all.
Is your musical concept being communicated? Is there clarity in your communication?
What’s getting in the way? Is there too much extraneous movement?
Professional orchestral musicians may be able to filter out the unnecessary messages, but students may not have the ability to decipher which gestures are important.
Do only what is needed to convey the meaning of the music to the musicians. Be careful to not over-direct and allow unnecessary gestures hinder your musical message.
Starting and cues
The rebound of the previous beat is what we show with the breath before starting the first note.
Four main hinges when conducting: finger, wrist, elbow and shoulder. Match the use of the appropriate hinge to the message of the music.
Elbows forward. Elbows back allows the baton to be held in a low position and the musicians have to choose between watching the conductor’s face and the baton.
Hands up without showing too much forearm.
Professional actors have a sense of torso. An open torso makes a huge difference and sends a powerful musical message. Authentic communication needs to come from the torso. Show your vulnerability.
“Lift your head and expose your heart.”
Collapsing forward (particularly to show softer dynamics) closes off that message.
“Stay upright or I’ll get my conductor’s straight jacket out!”