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Soapbox: How Can You Tell a Good Director?

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soapboxEvery so often, you hear someone articulate the idea that ‘So-and-so is a very good director, but their choir isn’t very good’. And when I hear this, my brain goes into melt-down at the sheer invalidity of this concept. The only measure of a conductor’s quality is the standard of performances they elicit from the musicians they work with. If your ensemble isn’t very good, it’s because the director isn’t very good.

Okay, so there are some caveats here. I anticipate your objections.

The raw material makes a difference. A director who is working with novices will not, from a standing start, produce results as good as one working with experienced musicians. This is particularly true of instrumental groups, but also a fair generalisation for singers. You’d expect auditioned choirs to achieve more than non-auditioned, as they have filtered out all the people who lack whichever set of skills you test for at audition.

But within your range of expectations for a particular cohort, a good director will get people to out-perform what they (and possibly everyone else) thought they could achieve, and help them over time to become more proficient musicians. Whatever the level of intake, we call a ‘good’ ensemble one that improves over time and which shows a real commitment to making the music. That’s why you can get good or bad school orchestras as well as good or indifferent professional symphony orchestras - the skill levels are different, but it is still reasonable to consider how they are doing relative to their current potential and peer group.

Length of tenure also makes a difference. A new director coming in to work with an ensemble with haphazard skills and bad habits won’t immediately produce top-notch results. It could take up to a couple of years to really turn things around. But they’ll nonetheless make a difference from the get-go if they’re any good. And then they’ll continue to make a difference every rehearsal. If people leave every rehearsal doing better than they did at the start, that adds up over time to solid development.

But a director who leads an ensemble over a period of years that remains underdeveloped relative to its peers is not a particularly good director. They may be an excellent musician, they may be an excellent organiser (and both of these are qualities that sustain middling to unremarkable ensembles in a state of relative stability over considerable lengths of time), but in the particular role qua director, the descriptors they merit are the same descriptors you would use for the performances they produce.

You can tell a good director by the good performances you hear from their ensembles.

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