It is three years since I took my first tentative steps into the wonderful world of choral conducting, and I have realised that choral conductors take many forms. Choral conductors are distinct from orchestral conductors in that they don’t use a baton: it is considered rude to point sticks at people! Orchestral conductors have to use a baton (usually white) as the players in their bands and orchestras have their eyes glued to their music and use their peripheral vision to see the directions given by the conductor’s baton. This is why the baton is white – to stand out against everyone’s concert dress, which is usually black. Singers, on the other hand, although they may well be holding music, are expected to actually look their conductor in the eyes! Choral conductors are usually better at conducting orchestras than orchestral conductors are at conducting choirs; a good orchestral conductor will put the baton down to conduct a choir.
The Musical Director, Director of Music, or MD is the person responsible for all the musical aspects of a performance or organisation, and is usually the principal conductor. Responsibilities include selection of repertoire (rep), ensuring the singers and players know the music thoroughly, supervising the musical interpretation of the singers and players, planning and running rehearsals, developing choral technique, working closely with accompanists, and conducting performances.
Conducting is way harder than it looks, as I discovered when I did my first course back in the summer of 2017. Despite this, musicians with no conducting experience are often expected to be able to lead choirs or orchestras. Examples would be composers conducting their own work … and Church of England parish organists. Very often, parishes like ours expect their organists to be able to rehearse, train and conduct the church choir.
Like all musicians, conductors are selected for employment by an audition process. When Jeremy first retired as Minister of Music in our parish, there was an audition and interview process for the selected applicants. The chosen piece was “The Souls of the Righteous”, and for three consecutive weeks, candidates for the post of Parish Organist went through the process of teaching it to us from scratch. At the time, our choir was small, but consisted of very talented musicians who were able to listen to a piece, sight-sing it, work through any ‘tricky corners’ with Jeremy, and then perform it. Not one of the would-be choir leaders warmed us up; instead they jumped straight into teaching. That meant they had no idea of our capabilities, our voices weren’t ready, and the process was quite tortuous. I hated this piece and dubbed it “The Souls of the Tortured”. I hoped to never sing it again.
2020 had other plans! All of our major liturgical festivals have been celebrated through services online. This has had many obvious drawbacks, but also the unexpected advantage of being able to sing. So, when planning the rep for All Souls 2020, this piece was an obvious choice – and a personal challenge because of its baggage.
It worked. Supported by Tom’s sympathetic organ accompaniment, I have learned to love this piece, and I commend it to you. The words are taken from Wisdom of Solomon III v1:
The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall no torment touch them.
You can hear Tom and I performing this anthem here: https://youtu.be/vYViJ3EvtZI
I hope it becomes as precious to you as it has to me.