Text, not meter, determines the shape of the musical phrase. Non-metric approach to conducting by maintaining textual rather than metrical pulse.
Study the meaning of each textual phrase and determine its musical shape, as both need to be assessed and transmitted in singing. Teach the choir staggered breathing and firmly discourage breathing in the middle of a word. Strive for a smooth, ethereal sound, without any extraneous accents or straining.
Try to achieve a harmonious balance of sound. No voice should be heard above another. All should fuse to create a perfectly blended sonority. This can be achieved even by the smallest amateur choir.
Basses should be sought and cultivated as they form the foundation, resilience and energy of the choir. A major effort should be made in the recruitment and training of basses.
Sopranos should be light, never overbearing as their role is to complement the altos, who serve as the foundation and support for the rich sound of the choir. High baritones are fillers and their role is to blend, not take the lead, especially if young and not yet developed voices. Advise all singers to take lessons in proper voice technique, sound production, breathing, etc. Metallic, harsh, or piercing voices should be avoided or retrained.
Sing with grace and stateliness, leaning on the lower voices but avoiding roughness or roars.
Tape and critically listen to one's choir frequently and at various stages of development. For comparison, also listen to tapes/recordings of as many other choirs as possible.
Never have the choir do any sudden crescendos or increase the sound on the last note of a phrase or cadence. That is considered highly unmusical. Cadences should be rounded off (paying particular attention to balance of parts) and fade away. Only in rare cases does a cadence call for a crescendo and those should be treated very carefully as one should not rely on high but low voices to build volume.
Always strive for a very smooth sound with a minimum amount of breaks (an influence of the znamenny chant). No staccatos. Avoid excessive rhythmic changes and change tempi gracefully. Strive to achieve a good pulse as well as a strong sense of musical direction and overall proportion.
The choir director must learn to be in full control of the slightest sound and nuances coming out of the choir. He/she (not the singers) must take full responsibility for that sound. Learn to communicate with hands and eyes and develop an inner relationship with choristers so that your slightest reaction will be instantly observed. This should be achieved with a minimum amount of gestures, never with elbows or swings of the arm.
A choir director should only be seen, never heard.
Reprinted from a handout provided at the 1993 Russian Orthodox Church Music Conference, Seattle, Washington.
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