These are loaded words in the field of choral music! When I worked with Northfield Youth Choirs, “find your voice” was a motto that seemed fitting as our young singers were growing up and finding their literal and metaphorical voices. I could write an entire article from that perspective alone. Instead, I wanted to turn to the adjacent topic of a choral conductor’s search for their voice.
When I was a student in college, I was so impressed with the conductors I sang for. They were inspiring and seemed larger than life. So, as an aspiring conductor, I later sought to channel habits from each of them in my own rehearsals. What I found was that, while each habit might be useful in its own way, none of them felt as compelling coming from me as from the conductors I looked up to.
Just as we each find ourselves—our voices—as we grow and develop into adults, we choral conductors also struggle to find our director personas: our conductor voices. As new conductors, we try out various models as we search for our own: the technician, the nurturing grandparent, the coffee-infused energizer, the quirky goofball, and so on. We often start with characteristics from our role models and explore outward from there. In some respects, we may even feel like teenagers again as we go through phases looking for our authentic director-selves.
As time has gone on, I’ve collected a variety of techniques and approaches as I’ve tried different models for directing, but putting on personalities is exhausting. Constantly trying to “be” a conductor is draining. The funny thing is, if you asked my students, I probably do have a choir director personality already—and they could probably describe it perfectly. And it’s probably not any of the personas I thought I was trying on. If I had to guess, the conductor persona my students would describe best matches the person I am when we take a break in rehearsal, when I’m talking with them at the beginning and end of class, or when I say hello to them in the hallways.
There is the joke about middle school students being able to see right through someone to their insecurities, and maybe there is some truth in that. Despite all my efforts to be a certain way for my students, the difference they see is probably marginal. It’s probably like the difference to my total appearance on a bad hair day. Sure, I see a big difference, but those around me just see me, maybe with a few hairs out of place. Sure, maybe I feel different when I’m trying to channel the caffeinated energizer director, but they probably see and hear me, just slightly faster. I might think I’m channeling a role model, but they probably just see and hear Mr. Jeffrey acting a little weird because he’s trying to channel his role model.
While I was talking with my friend Korbinian Wild about this topic, he made a great point. He observed, “the answer kind of lies directly in front of you.” Perhaps the best way to “hear” your “conductor voice” is to listen to a recording of it, metaphorically speaking. Have your choir members play the recording back. Ask them about their favorite moments from choir. Have them write you a burn on the back of an assignment (I did this once, and the burns were both harsh and hilarious). If members do skits or impersonations, observe the characteristics they highlight. Your singers know your conducting personality best: they are the ones who experience it. These are just a few fun ways to gain insight into how your choir members experience your “conductor voice.”
In the end, I guess the same advice applies to finding your voice as a choir director as does finding yourself as a young person: just be yourself. I’m not saying it’s easy: I still have a terrible time being myself in front of my choirs. Sometimes it’s helpful to remind myself to focus on doing something well, not on doing something the way a role model would do it. I have to trust my intuition: that my role models, experience, and reflection have taught me to recognize a job done well and that there is more than one correct way to get there. I have to trust my voice.