Choral Technique and Interpretation by Henry Coward

Webpage by American contemporary composer William Copper, whose music for chorus is well known.

Mus. Doc. Oxon.



   In speaking of the equipment of a choral
conductor, it would be easy to draw a fancy sketch
of what he should be -- a perfect genius in music;
a master of language and of English in particular;
an exquisite in dress; a paragon in manner -- but
these things, though valuable, must give place to 
other and more serviceable qualifications if success
is to be attained.
   The first thing a conduct requires is self-
reliance, born of mastery of the subject he has to
conduct and confidence in himself.  If he is 
nervous and apologetic, if, when he makes a slip,
he feels crused and would like to sink through the
floor, he had better leave conducting alone.  It is
the confident, not-to-be-daunted man who is fit to
be a leader of men.   Again, the conductor who
wishes to excel must be patient in two senses.  In
the first place he must, till near the performance,
tolerate mistakes without signs of ill-temper,
remembering that it is only a few amongst his
choir who can do things perfectly from the start.
Let him be prepared for, say, a score of errors at
every rehearsal, and count any diminution from
that number as so much gain.  But it is the second
kind of patience, i.e., waiting patience, which is the
more important.  It is in this fight with time that

most conductors fail.  Whatever they do in the 
way of "labour" they must learn to wait.  No
greater mistake can be made by aspirants in any
branch of art than to suppose that as soon as they
are fit for a position the position will come.  Art
will have its price, and waiting is part of that price.
One may be justified in believing that "a stone
that is fit for the wall is not left in the road," but
it is often a long time before that stone is noticed
and put into its proper place.  Generally speaking,
it takes an artist from five to ten years to get proper
recognition.  In the case of a conductor it usually
takes longer, because opportunities for showing his
skill come so seldom.  I know a number of musicians
up and down the British Isles who might have been
in high places, but because they were not quickly 
and sufficiently recognised they gave up the
struggle; had they had faith in themselves and
waited a little longer they would probably have
realised their highest ambition.  It seems hard to
pass judgment on these men -- some of them clever
conductors -- but this abandonment of the struggle
through hope being deferred is perhaps a proof that
they lacked the essential staying qualities which
every conductor must possess.  Therefore it was
perhaps fortunate that they quickly retired. 

               PERSONAL INFLUENCE.

   In addition to the cardinal virtue named above,
the conductor must have power to inspire, incite,
and command -- a kind of personal magnetism, which
makes his persuasive will law.  
   To get this power two things are necessary.
First, he must be so thoroughly master of the work

in hand that the choir have confidence in him and will
follow him in everything.  Second, he must be an
enthusiast in his work.  To be the master he must
be at the service of all.  His zeal must infect his
followers, so that the motto Do ut des ("I give
that you may give") is faithfully carried out.  Let
these personal traits be acquired, and a kind of 
beneficent autocracy follows as a matter of course. 

            THE REHEARSALS.

   The conductor must take every precaution to
make the rehearsals interesting.  The test of a 
society's success is the popularity of the rehearsals,
and the test of the rehearsals is the feeling that if
one be not attended something in the way of 
enlightenment or pleasure has been missed. 
   Plans for making the rehearsals stimulating and
for keeping up the interest have been stated in a 
previous chapter, but it was not mentioned that a
conductor must not be dull.  Even if he be ill he
must keep a cheerful countenance.  He must
employ all sorts of legitimate devices for saving
time and working to perfection, two of which will
be found later under the heads of "Catch Words"
and "Motto Words."  In fact, thorough preparation 
in matter and manner for each rehearsal is the
touchstone of success.  


   The chief function of a present-day conductor is
to interpret the music rather than to conduct it.
The centre of gravity has been shifted from the 
mechanical to the mental; from merely directing

the music to grasping and imparting the spirit
behind the notes and words.  To accomplish this,
hard thinking and imagination are necessary.
Before the ideal rendering can be given, the work
must have been thoroughly studied privately.
Analysis must always precede synthesis.  Through
not doing this conductors fail to give distinction to
performances, and they wonder why they fail.
Other people do not.
   Having formulated the plan of interpretation,
then comes the task of transmitting it to the choir.
Remember that highly-sensitive brains are a scarce
commodity.  But though this be so, and the 
choralists as a body may have, artistically, a low
saturation point, they are often quick at following
a pattern, and are more enthusiastic with their two
talents than others who are blessed with five.  This
is the conductor's salvation.  He can pattern, they
will imitate; he can Svengali them into enthusiastic
   As to the artistic technique at his disposal, the
rules already tabulated give the conductor ample
scope for every shade of expression or characteriza-
tion.  But every rule needs modification according 
to the context of the music. Herein the skill and
individuality of the conductor are revealed.  it is
in the judicious toning-down of a rule, or the carrying
to extreme lengths of an idea or principle, that the
artist is displayed.  So let the conductor rejoice
that he has the chance in almost every piece
of showing the touch of a gifted soul, or at least
refinement of taste.  But while never neglecting the
printed marks of expression, do not let him miss
the ideal through crossing every "t" and dotting
every "i", or he will be a musical example of the

  TACT - 253 -
man with the muck-rake.  Finally let him remember
that, like the conjurer with his inexhaustible hat, he
will get out of the piece and the choir exactly what
he has put in.  Therefore, as the initiation of all
artistic results lies with the conductor, he must sow
lavishly to reap bountifully.


   The man who lacks tact is not fit to be a 
conductor.  Tact is the lubricant that keeps the
administrative machinery smoothly working when
heat and friction would otherwise arise.

              TACT IN REHEARSALS.

   Making rehearsals enjoyable is a valuable kind of
tact, but it is in the management of the mass of
singers that this quality, or the lack of it, is made
most manifest.  One of the best methods is to turn
a petty annoyance into a pleasantry, while one of
the most tactless things is to be cleverly sarcastic
either to the whole body or to a single person.  It
is so easy and self-satisfying to a conductor to 
square accounts with some offensive person by a 
crushing impromptu, that it is hard to resist the
temptation.  But these things must be avoided,
for, boomerang-like, they always rebound. 

              TACT WITH MEMBERS.

   A conductor should always be accessible to every
member of his choir; and though it is impossible to
give much time to each person, whenever a member
speaks to him he should not give the impression of 

being either bored or in a hurry, but imply that for
the time being the member is the only person in
the universe.  Consideration begets appreciation. 


   This opens the question, "Is it better to work
with or without a committee?"  I say it is better
to work with and through a committee.  Even
when a conductor is supposed to work alone he has
always a kind of informal committee.  Further,
autocracy always breaks down.  Conductors should
realise that a man is a committee-forming animal --
with a strong bias towards being chairman.
Therefore they should accept this fact of natural
history cheerfully, and with a view to utilising 
collective brains for the furtherance of artistic
purposes.   By a little tact this can be done.  You
make the bolts, the committee shoots them.  As a
rule committees look to the conductor for initiative;
therefore all he has to do is to propose a well-
thought-out idea in a courteous manner, and they,
thankful that they have got someone to formulate
their wishes so admirably, carry the proposition
with pleasure.  Tact in dealing either with choirs
or committees is simply displaying a prompt sweet

              TACT IN CONDUCTING.

   I once saw a conductor do a most tactless
thing.  The choir got out of hand and sang much
too quickly.  Instead of going along with them, and by
long, decided sweeps of the baton bringing them to
the proper tempo, he went on beating as usual and

gesticulating that they were beats before him.  By
so doing he showed the audience that there was
something wrong, and spoiled the effect of the
chorus.  This illustrates the general principle that
when a conductor is before the public he must not
show by any sign of confusion or displeasure that
anything is other than perfect.  It is always better
to go on until some favourable moment when, by a 
look and sign, the scattered forces can be re-united.
Incidentally it should be said that if the conductor
referred to had had a firm square beat instead of
one of the erratic, "curly" order, the probabilities
are that everything would have gone as it ought to
have done.   Tact in conducting includes looking
pleasant, and, by a quick eye and encouraging 
smile, calling forth that responsive whole-hearted
effort upon which, in rehearsal, I lay so much stress.


   A conductor came to ask me what he should
do under the following circumstances.  He had
succeeded a man who was worthily held in high
esteem, and whose good work was often referred
to by a certain few in a way which implied
disparagement of himself.  Further, these people
were partisans of an unsuccessful candidate, and
they were covertly disloyal to the new conductor.
This is indeed a common trial, and one with which I
could quite sympathise, for thrice I have passed
through the same experience.  To undergo it is
heart-breaking, because you feel not only a lack of
sympathetic response, but that everything you say
and do is misconstrued, while the covert indifference
or open rebellion is like an arctic trickle running 

down your spine.   "The silent smile of slow
disparagement" takes all the heart out of you.
Then you realise the full force of the scriptural
words, "And he did not many mighty works there, 
because of their unbelief." 
   Still, as these conditions do exist, the question
arises, "How are they to be met?"  Three plans
present themselves: 
   (1) Wear the malcontents down;
   (2) Win them over;
   (3) Shake off the dust from your feet and retire.
   Plans 1 and 2 usually work concurrently.  To be
forewarned is to be forearmed, therefore, as you
know all these disloyal spirits, prepare for their
opposition by putting on the impervious cloak of
indifference to all they say and do.  But while you
ignore their conduct, be as polite to them as possible.
Surprise them by your magnanimity.  Make them
feel ashamed of themselves.  The other members --
outsiders in the feud, but yoursiders in sympathy--
see the game and consciously or unconsciously help
you.  In, say, two or three seasons the malcontents
will either have withdrawn or will have become
your ardent supporters.  This has been my 
experience, at least.  Should this not happen, but
your opponents maintain a vendetta spirit, resign
your position, and present your pearls to those who
will appreciate them, or the worry will kill both
your reputation and yourself.


   Young aspirants for the conductor's baton,
reading the above, and bearing in mind what was
said about a probationary stage of five or ten years'

hard work with the choir on the technical and
artistic sides before due recognition comes, will
probably ask the question, "Is the game worth the
candle?"  To this I say decidedly, "Yes."  It is
true that it seems a long time to look forward to,
but the time will go whether effort be made or not,
and it will be certainly better to have acquired some
assets at the end of a decade than to talk of what 
might have been.
   But this ten years' waiting is not all desert. 
Although a conductor may not get commensurate
reward for his time, work, and skill, he will get some
recognition.  He will be having continual, if humble,
feasts by the way.  It is said that to the members
of each choir there is only one perfect conductor 
and that is their own.  If you be that conductor, is
it nothing to have the devoted service and 
enthusiastic regard of your own choir; to have them
helping you in your ambitions; to have the delights
of a long vista of glorious successes, although made
merely in your own little circle; to feel that each
year some progress has been made and that the
goal is nearer than it was; to feel growing power
within you and with it an enlarged vision of what
you can do in the future?
   It is no small thing to have the delights mentioned
above to tone down the many disheartening worries
incidental to being in the wilderness.  The sum
total of it all is this: The joys of the struggle are
worth the sacrifices.  Therefore let the determined
aspirant "rejoice and be glad" that there are these
difficulties, because they form the testing fires which
eliminate the clever but weak, the brilliant but shifty, 
the steady but stodgy, while they bring out the fine
qualities of the man of parts, power, and reliability.

                HOW TO SELECT A CHOIR.

   This question is often asked, and it is impossible
to answer it unless the conditions and the resources 
of the district are known.  Further, the nature of
the choir, whether for a village concert, a com-
petition, or a Musical Festival, must be considered.
If it be in a district where singers are scarce, then
it is a good policy to take in everybody who wishes
to join the choir, and press in every singer who
would otherwise stand aloof.  But there are many
districts where there is an abundance of singers who
are only waiting for a leading spirit to gather and
re-organize the remains of choral societies which,
from one cause or another, have become defunct or
are in a state of suspended animation.
   Assuming that singers are available, what should
be the basis of admission into a choir or choral
society?  Should it be social position, nomination, or
individual examination?  It will have to be one of
the three.  You cannot mix two or three systems
together.  I doubt if even music would soothe the
breast of a young lady who, having passed the test
for admission successfully, has insult added to
injury when her neighbour gives her to understand
that she (her neighbour) is a "superior person,"
having been introduced by nomination and not
by test. 
   As to the social qualifications, I am convinced
that, other things being equal, the better a singer
has been educated the more refined are the results
obtainable.  But while admitting, with pleasure,
that some of the most energetic and enthusiastic
singers I have ever met are high in the social scale,
it would be fatal to a high standard of performance

to elect members upon social position alone, 
because so many would join and then refuse 
to work.  This I have seen over and over
again in societies.  The best plan, therefore, is
to insist on vocal and reading ability as being
the basis of admission to a choir.  This has
good effects both positive and negative, for
while it secures only useful members it chokes
off shoals of pretentious people who never get
as far as the examination room through fear of
the  test. 


   I attach the utmost importance to reading power.
I do not mean that a person without a voice at all
should be admitted; but I always prefer singers
with good average voices who can read fairly well,
to singers with really good voices who cannot read,
or can read only indifferently.   The reasons for
this preference are these:  With good readers of
average voice I can extract every ounce of tone
they have in them; whereas one can never get half
the normal power out of a body of poor readers
owing to their lack of confidence, while if they
should take it into their heads to "sing out" they
often do more harm than good.  Again, the confident
singers, by hitting the note fair in the middle,
gets twice or thrice the amplitude of vibration,
intensity and loudness.  Mathematically stated
it stands thus: 

                                 Power.  Attack.  Total.

  The good voice (unit of power)    4   x   1  =   4 
  The average voice (unit of power) 3   x   2  =   6 


   As to the standard of the tests imposed upon 
candidates, these should not only be comparatively
easy, but designed to show what the candidates
know rather than to find out what they do not know.
There should be (a) an easy voice-test, (b) a time-
test, and (c) a tune-test.  But though easy they
should be accurately done, as it is this positive 
certainty which gives the promise of future
pliability and responsiveness.  Some conductors
test candidates by choosing some difficult piece
from an oratorio at random, and if the candidate is
approximately correct he or she is accepted.  This
is not a good method, as it puts a premium on mere
guesswork, and is no test of what a candidate is
able to master. 
   The following are specimens of the tests used by
the Sheffield Musical Union: -- 
   (1) A sight-test in the major mode, including 
        transitions to related keys, of moderate
Major Mode sight singing
   (2) A sight-test in the minor mode, about as long
        as the above (8 or 10 bars);
   (3) A time-test, to be sung on one tone; 

   (4) The voice-test as follows, which is required to
        be sung with clear articulation, and due
        regard to expression: 
Voice Test
   For the World Tour Choir the voice-tests were: _-
        "Hear ye, Israel" (sopranos)
        "Woe unto them" (contraltos) 
        "If with all your hearts" (tenors)
        "Lord God of Abraham" (basses). 

              CHOICE OF VOICES.

   The saying that "nothing beats a good old voice
except a good young one" is only true when the
old voice is a worn voice, and not primarily the

voice of an old singer.  If I were selecting a choir
for, say, a competition, I should prefer voices of
sopranos and contraltos from twenty to forty years 
of age, tenors and basses from twenty-five to
forty-five.  This is only a rough average, because
some of the best choralists I know, both ladies and
gentlemen, have attained their jubilee.  Certainly
the rich, mature, mellow voices of the middle age
are to be preferred to the thinner voices of the
young singers.  But some one may remark, "Do
we not miss the ring of young, fresh voices in the
choir formed of older people?" Not of necessity.
Voices are what we term fresh when they attack the
notes firmly with good ring, and are free from the
upward "scoop" and the downward "swoop" and
the harsh metallic quality which some singers
develop.   As these defects more frequently occur
in old singers than in young ones we associate them
with the seniors.  But really, if care be taken, old
singers can keep their voices fresh and vigorous,
while they have the advantage of fulness and
power.  While making this defense of old singers I
do not undervalue young ones.  Young, clear,
bright voices form the complement of the mature
voices, and should never be absent from a choir.
The ideal choir is one in which both old and young
are represented -- that is, if the old singers have taken
care of their voices.  If, on the other hand, they
have developed a shrill, wiry, drawling tone, drastic
measures should be taken to exclude these fossilized
voices.  Therefore it would be a good thing if every
important society were to pass a rule to have a 
re-examination of every one of its members once
every five years.  Further consideration is given to
this subject under the heading next to be considered.

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