|Student Conductors Take Up the Baton
May 08, 2007
Contact: Kate Minogue
Watch Lee Ballard '07, Julie Grubbs '08, Mejin Leechor '08,
Claire Potter '07, Michael Spangler '10, and Don Williams '08
lead the Davidson College Symphony Orchestra in concert in the Duke Family Performance Hall.
What does it take to lead an orchestra?
Six Davidsonians had the unique chance to learn just that firsthand in this spring’s new music course, Introduction to Conducting. For a rather unusual final examination, they stepped onto the podium in the Duke Family Performance Hall to lead their peers in concert on May 8, 2007.
“By the second week of class, I had a much greater respect for conductors. It’s much harder and more involved to lead an ensemble than I ever realized,” said Claire Potter, ’07. Potter sings in choir and also performs on the piano. She has been interested in conducting from a young age, and was excited about the opportunity to learn from Professor Tara Chamra, the director of the Davidson College Symphony Orchestra.
Potter led the DCSO and members of the Concert Choir in a performance of Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane. The six minute performance, however, represented a semester of hard work and practice. In class with Lee Ballard ’07, Julie Grubbs ’08, Mejin Leechor ’08, Don Williams ’08, and Michael Spangler ’10, she learned basic baton patterns, left hand gestures, and how to analyze a score with Prof. Chamra.
“The biggest challenge for new conductors is to listen while they are leading,” Chamra noted. “It’s so easy to turn off your ears when you are learning new movements. As a conductor, your brain is continuously processing so much information. You’re keeping track of your place in the score, thinking ahead to cue musicians, listening to different lines, and coordinating your motions all at once.”
The inspiration for the class came from Professor Chamra’s own undergraduate experience at Franklin and Marshall College. “I took a conducting class from Dr. Brian Norcross, and it was truly life changing. After that course, I changed my career pursuit to becoming a conductor instead of a medical doctor.”
Chamra held conducting clinics to give the students practice with each new concept. One student would conduct the others as they played excerpts from classic orchestral repertoire. The students traded feedback as their individual styles began to emerge. All sessions were videotaped so students could see their progress, and maintain awareness of their movements. They also worked one-on-one with Chamra to refine their skills.
“We would conduct for her in her office, and she would sing along, seeing the minutest detail of the left hand. I would communicate a change in the sound, but not even realize it until Prof. Chamra would respond as a musician in an orchestra might!” Potter reflected that everyone faced unique challenges as they developed their styles; in her case, a small body type made it more difficult to communicate louder volumes.
What was it like to finally step in front of a group of her peers in the DCSO? “I was concentrating so hard on my movements that I really didn’t hear much at first,” Potter admitted. She also noted that the orchestra seemed to enjoy the variety of styles that the new conductors introduced, and that the musicians gave helpful feedback.
For the final concert with the DCSO, Chamra gave each student conductor a choice between two pieces she selected for them personally. Her choices were both pieces she thought would challenge the students, but would also exhibit their strengths, allowing them to have a relaxed, fun experience during their first performance.
Chamra began the May 8 concert by introducing the audience to the role of the conductor. By asking audience members to clap in response to her movements, she demonstrated the power of gestures to sculpt a group’s sound. Then senior Don Williams entered the stage and commenced the program, leading the DCSO in the Allegro from Mozart’s Serenade in G Major, “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”. Junior Julie Grubbs followed, conducting the Nocturne from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Potter then conducted Pavane.
After intermission, junior Mejin Leechor led a performance of Mozart’s Allegro moderato from his Symphony No. 29 in A Major. First-year Michael Spangler the conducted two movements of Elgar’s “Enigma Variations”, W.N. and Nimrod. Senior Lee Ballard concluded the concert with Mars, the first movement of Holst’s The Planets.
“It was so much fun to be able to communicate and then create a certain sound,” said Potter. During the final performance, she took one of Chamra’s most important pieces of advice to heart: trust the orchestra, and then focus on making music. “I’ve become a much better listener after taking this class. I notice more details in the music, and am more sensitive to what the composer was trying to evoke. I’d definitely like to do more conducting.”
Chamra plans to teach Introduction to Conducting again in spring of 2008. “It’s been a really positive experience for everyone. There needs to be a mutual respect between a conductor and the orchestra, and I think the students on the podium and those in the ensemble achieved that. They were responding to each other to make music, which is the most important thing.”
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,700 students. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently ranked in the top ten liberal arts colleges in the country by U.S. News and World Report magazine.