Conducting a Choir and/or Ensemble

conducting is the art of unifying the efforts of a number of musicians simultaneously engaged in musical performance.
Sir Emeka Nwokedi and the Lagos City Chorale
In music, conducting is the art of unifying the efforts of a number of musicians simultaneously engaged in musical performance. This is one of the types of musical performing art, which involves directing a group of musicians (orchestra, choir, ensemble, or opera or Ballet Company in the preparation and public performance of a musical work. Conducting is done by a conductor, who ensures order and technical mastery in the performance of the ensemble and endeavors to impart to the ensemble his own artistic approach and understanding of a given work.

The art of conducting is based on a specially developed system of manual motions. The conductor’s face (his look and expressions) also plays an important role in conducting. Modern conducting is highly individual and requires great musical understanding, a thorough knowledge of instruments and of the concert repertory, a clear mastery of the baton and hand gestures, and a human sympathy for the performers. Training in music theory, a good ear, and a fine musical memory as well as an active, purposeful will are all expected of the modern conductor.

The art of conducting is based on a specially developed system of manual motions.

However, whether you conduct a congregation or a choir, your basic duties are the same: keep the singers singing together and help them interpret the music. A choir should sing with greater artistic refinement than a congregation, though, so you must use conducting skills beyond those needed to direct a congregation. The skills you need to successfully conduct a choir are:
1.  Effective preparatory beats.
2.  Meaningful facial expressions.
3.  Conducting with the left arm.
4.  Knowing when to use a baton.

Using these skills, you can conduct a variety of tempos, dynamics, and musical styles. The choir can respond to your signals by singing with added feeling, making the music come alive for the listeners.


The Preparatory Beat
The preparatory beat and the moments just before it are when you get the music off to a successful start. As you take your place in front of the choir and raise your arms to conduct, make sure every member of the choir and the accompanist are ready to begin. In this brief moment, feel the rhythm and mood of the music. Feel the beat in proper tempo or count a measure of beats to yourself.

The preparatory beat and the moments just before it are when you get the music off to a successful start.
Sir Emeka Nwokedi and the Lagos City Chorale


When all is ready, conduct the preparatory beat. Let this beat reflect your intentions for tempo, dynamics, and emotion. If the music is slow and solemn, the preparatory beat should be slow and give a feeling of solemnity. If the music is joyful or bold, the preparatory beat should show these moods. The choir can then respond from the very first note, singing with the musical expression you desire.
Remember always the primary purposes of the prep beat are:
a. indicate style
b. indicate tempo
c. indicate dynamics
d. indicate breathing
e. invitation for the ensemble to play


As a conductor, you must use the preparatory position as a signal for your choir and/or ensemble to get ready to start their playing. It secures initial attention, readies the mind and readies the body of the performers. It also gives the musicians time to raise their instruments to a playing position.

Facial Expression and Eye Contact
Facial expression and eye contact are two of your most important tools. Use them constantly. To do this, you must know the music well enough to look away from it much of the time. Think of yourself as a driver and the score as a road map. We may need to occasionally glance at the road map, but staring at it while driving could have disastrous consequences!

If conductors are visually connected to the musicians in their choir and the accompanist, the musicians watch the conductor more closely.

If conductors are visually connected to the musicians in their choir and the accompanist, the musicians watch the conductor more closely. Assess the amount of eye contact you are making with the choir and/or ensemble as you conduct. Use your eyes and face to tell the choir what expression you want them to put in the music. Before the music begins, give an alert and encouraging look. When the music ends, show an expression of appreciation and approval.

Using the Left Arm and Hand
The left arm and hand are very important tools in conducting a choir. Here are some ways to use them:
1.  Use both arms to give the preparatory beat and downbeat. Continue conduct-ing with both arms for a full measure or more, letting your left arm mirror your right. Then drop your left arm to your side.

The left arm and hand are very important tools in conducting a choir

2.  Use both arms for cutoffs and for mirroring the beat pattern for emphasis (especially when slowing or quickening the beat).
3.  Use your left arm and hand to clarify the style, mood, or phrasing.
4.  Sometimes one or more vocal parts do something different than what the rest of the choir is doing. Use your left hand to signal instructions to the choir while your right arm conducts the beat.


Using your left arm and hand can improve your communication with the choir. But don’t overuse it. When you only need to conduct the beat, use your right arm, letting your left arm rest at your side. The left hand can be a great help but also a great distraction. Using the left hand to mirror the right hand is sometimes effective, but there are often more expressive possibilities for the left hand. Watch your left hand in the mirror and ask yourself how you could use it more effectively to communicate dynamics, articulations, releases, and cues.

Using a Baton
If you are conducting a large choir, a baton helps singers see what you are doing and stay together. Using a baton is an additional skill but a baton cannot express what the hand can in interpreting the music and is not as useful with smaller groups. Traditionally, conductors of choirs will not conduct using a baton unless they are leading a full orchestra along with their choir, whereas conductors of orchestras and other large ensembles will use a baton.

Using a baton is an additional skill but a baton cannot express what the hand can in interpreting the music

Of course, there is no hard and fast rule for this; notable badass Pierre Boulez is known for never using a baton at all, and I know many choral conductors who simply prefer to use a baton. At the end of the day, the technique of conducting is all about providing nonverbal communication with a maximum of efficiency, and in order to do that you need to know both how you can best operate to provide effective musical leadership, and what your ensemble is going to expect based on their experience with you and other conductors.
ALSO READ: The Reed Organ

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