How to become an amazing conductor and band leader!

I love conducting and directing music ensembles. Whether that is conducting a concert band, orchestra, choir or a chamber group, I just love helping the musicians in the group grow in confidence and ability.

When you first read through a piece with your band there is that sensation of will it ever come together and perhaps this piece is the one that is just a step too hard! Then you get to the concert and you hear your band play that piece, reflect on the hard work and dedication that they put in to getting the piece ready and you just beam with pride for them.

Over the last year or so I have been playing clarinet in different bands and it has been a great opportunity to reflect on the experience of being in a band from the performer’s perspective rather than just being the director. It was a great insight on what we all do well as directors and what we can do to make our ensembles an even more enjoyable experience for everyone involved.

  1. Make new members welcome!

It takes a lot of courage for someone to come and join a new band or choir. They come with plenty of fears of whether they will be good enough and questioning if they will be able to keep up with the music the band is playing. They certainly don’t want to make mistakes or be picked upon for making mistakes – regardless of how talented they actually are. Their first impression of you and the band not only can help reduce these fears but will also help them decide if playing in any band is right for them.

Making new members feel welcome seems so obvious to say and yet can be often overlooked. We ask people to join our bands, give up their free time, pay a membership fee and yet we don’t introduce ourselves or make the effort to have a conversation with them. These new members need to trust us and that we have the best interests of the band and the members at heart. They want to know that the band is a safe space to be part of, regardless of the performance level. This has to come firstly from the director because you are the one they are watching and following.

Ensure you have a system in place for welcoming new members and introducing them to the band and the section leader. Make sure that you have procedures in place for the new member to be added to mailing groups or whatever apps you share concert information. This is an important process to have in place to help the new member feel welcome, valued and wanting to commit to the band.

If this is not a strength you have, then find that amazing band member that everyone loves and who is happy to chat and look after the new members. Get them to ensure all the steps are in place for getting music, notifications and knowing what the dress code is for concerts.

2. Giving a new player the appropriate part

Stop making it your policy that the new player automatically plays part 3. I know we have a sense of loyalty to our existing band members who may have been in the band since day one, but you will not recruit or retain new members if you automatically stick new players on part 3. In many of the bands I have played in recently the common age has been 55+ and if we want our young musicians to come from school bands to play in community bands and ensure bands thrive for years to come we must think a little differently.

Why – well we shouldn’t just presume that every member walking through the door is a beginner. If we have taken the time to get to know our new members properly and their prior experiences they may be much stronger at playing than you presume. Of course someone has to play part 3 and your polite new member will probably agree to play it to start with as that is always the standard practice but I promise you if it is too easy then they will be bored, looking at their watch and considering whether they even want to return the following week. The other problem with this, whether it is in a school setting or in a community setting, they will be asked by others what the band is like and their opinion on their experience. We want this to be positive feedback into our communities as it will help sustain the future of the band or choir.

3. Conduct properly!

How you prepare and conduct in every rehearsal is a reflection of your value of the group and the quality that is to be produced. Don’t be half-hearted with your conducting in rehearsals and just save your best conducting skills for the concert. Remember, this will be reflected in the way the band plays too in rehearsals. Trust me as an experienced conductor, it can be frustrating playing a part and trying to follow the conducting of another director who is only giving it 50%!

Whether you are a new conductor or a seasoned pro, there is absolutely no reason not to keep mastering your craft. Work on your beat placement, style, directions, and musical interpretation. Take lessons, watch others (there are 1000s of concerts and conductors on Youtube), practice away from the bandroom and even record and review your own conducting performance work. The more you invest in developing the skill of being a conductor the better experience your bands will have with you.

4. Plan your rehearsals

In one rehearsal I went to it was clear the director was not prepared for the rehearsal and was totally disorganised all evening. We have all been there from time to time, especially when wearing so many musical hats during the week. Whilst the director was struggling to be organised and give decent directions, it caused tension within the band and allowed the vocal members to call out and chip in. Truthfully, most of the players left feeling frustrated because the band had not improved that night and it felt like a wasted evening. Now, this can of course happen occasionally, but should definitely not be the norm.

Plan your rehearsal and know what it is the band should be aiming to have achieved by the end of the session. Even if you don’t communicate this before rehearsals then make sure it is clear during the rehearsal. Balance the amount of talking you do and the amount of playing the band get to do. You might have an interesting and busy schedule going on that you think the band want to hear all about but truthfully they don’t care that much because they have come to play. Remember to give genuine praise to the band when they achieve the goal of the rehearsal and don’t forget to tune at some point!

5. The tone and energy of the band is up to you!

As the director of the band the tone and energy you show up to rehearsals with is the tone and energy that you will get back in return. If you want the rehearsal to be fun then be fun. If you want it to be serious and focused then this will come from your direction. If you are someone who likes humour and joy then bring that to the rehearsal. It is totally acceptable to have your own style and method as a director as that is what makes you unique. Never be afraid to get feedback and self-reflect on ways you can improve the experience for you and your band.

Be careful with the negative energies – sarcasm, patronising and insincere comments even said in jest can create tension and distrust, especially for new members who don’t know you like the rest of the band. I remember playing in a band at university and the director was an amazing musician and conductor but was so cutting in the words he used and how he spoke to the band. Whenever he led the rehearsal it actually made you terrified of playing the wrong note and you dreaded being asked as a section to play a passage alone. That’s not a healthy way to lead any group and will have a direct impact on that player’s confidence and love of music. At no point should it be our goal to make another musician feel bad about their skills or their ability. If you need to talk to someone about their playing then do it privately and from a place of kindness and compassion. Be the band leader you would want to play for!

Here at Passionate About Music Education we strive to share our love of music with others and create a wealth of positive experiences for musicians, especially those in our many ensembles. Music is a beautiful gift that all humans deserve to feel and as musical leaders this is essential in our bands, orchestras, choirs and chamber groups.

If you would like to know more about our conducting masterclasses for band and choir directors then reach out and we would be more than happy to share all the information and when the next one is scheduled.

Check out this video about conducting and being a great band and choir director!

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