So I’ve told this story to several people as an amusing anecdote, and my wife has been bothering me to write it up as a blog post for at least a year now. So, at long last, here is why guitarists shouldn’t conduct…
As an undergraduate music student, we are all required to participate in at least one university ensemble. Most instrumentalists perform in the orchestra or bands. However, since there is no place in those ensembles for guitar, guitarists usually end up singing in the choirs. When I first went to music school in Austin, this is precisely what happened to me. I had never sung in a choir before, but after a semester or so, I ended up loving it and developed a great appreciation for choir music.
When it came time for me to take a conducting class (something that was also required), I chose choral conducting based on my new found love of the choir. It was a memorable class, but the most memorable day came during one of my in-class exams.
We had been working on the basics for a while – simple conducting patterns using the right hand only. About halfway through the semester, we started, slowly, bringing in the left hand for cueing. Our exam was to conduct a section from Vivaldi’s Gloria – a section where each part of the choir comes in successively – first sopranos (thus cueing them in with the left hand), then altos, tenors and basses. Simple enough right?
So, I’m standing in front of this full choir – we have the instrumental part playing on a recording and I’m conducting along with it. It’s my job to cue in the sections of the choir at the correct time. I’m conducting away, and the soprano entrance is coming up fast. I cue them in just in time, however, as soon as I did a couple of sopranos start laughing. At first I was just thinking, “well, they’re just joking around – nothing to do with me.”
After a few bars, the altos. I cue them in, and again, as soon as I do, a couple of them start laughing along with more sopranos. So I’m like, “what he hell?” – but it was an exam, so I couldn’t stop. I start peeking down to check to see if my fly is open, which it wasn’t. Next the tenors – same result – a few laugh – more altos join in – and now almost the entire soprano section. Basses – now almost the entire choir is laughing including the teacher. Now, at this point, I have absolutely no idea what is going on. I remember I was actually quite angry. Here I was, doing my best to conduct (which I was self-conscious about anyway) and I’ve got this entire class laughing at me, and I can’t stop to ask what the deal is.
Here’s where I stop and explain a few things about playing guitar. As a student, I was practicing my guitar for hours and hours every day, playing classical music that often times put the left hand into all sorts of contorted positions. Doing this for so many hours changed the natural lay of my hands, so if I wasn’t paying attention, they could fall into almost any strange configuration.
So, back to conducting class. I finish – people are wiping their eyes from laughing and my teacher has her head in her hands, laughing. I walk up to her with an exasperated look on my face and ask, “What happened?!”
Apparently, I was concentrating so hard on my conducting – getting the pattern right and cueing sections when they needed to come in – that I didn’t notice when I raised my left hand to cue, I was flipping the middle finger to each section of the choir in turn. So essentially, it was like “F-you”, ok now altos “F-you” – now tenors “F-you”, etc..
Best Vivaldi Gloria – ever 🙂