The cartoon caricatures (from the old LDS Conducting Manual put together by Ralph Woodward) were delicious - Flamboyant Flossie, Tremulous Thomas, Stolid Stephan, Amiable Annie and Down-the-Line Dorothy. Each of these characters demonstrated how "clueless" these put-upon conductors were. Obviously, most of these characters were thrown into the opportunity to conduct music with very little training or experience.
Where Flamboyant Flossie thought that she needed big, showy motions to direct the singing, Tremulous Thomas barely moved a muscle beyond the shivering in his boots from stage fright. Stolid Stephan could keep the beat but nothing more, and Amiable Annie kept the same sweet facial expressions no matter the pathos of the song. Then, there's Down-the Line-Dorothy who was so intent on following the music that she never took her eyes up, out of the score.
Obviously, a good conductor must keep a good solid beat. And, yes, there are times when a conductor will use big, showy motions. It goes without saying that he will pay close attention to the score. Hopefully, he won't be shaking in his boots from stage fright. But one of the most important jobs of the conductor is to give expressive facial clues to help the performers know how to emote and create a good performance. Conducting is all about giving easy to follow cues and clues.
As I have studied what good conductors do, I have noticed the vast repertoire of CUES and CLUES they use to get the job done. Facial expressions are easily the most fun to remember such as:
The "Look Alive, People!" face -- the conductor holds his fingers up at his eyebrows indicating you may need toothpicks to keep your eyes open to look engaged.
The "Evil Eye"-- indicating that there are certain singers in your section allowing their voices to come out of the fabric of the dynamic.
The "Stinky Diaper" face -- indicating that the passage just sung was terribly out of tune, SO FIX IT!!!!!!!!
The "Come On, Everybody, Let's Do This" face -- indicating his great expectations of the singers with just a twinge of anxiety. This face is usually employed just before the beginning of the first downbeat of the first number.
The "Good Job, You Finally Did It" face -- Oftentimes employed in conjunction with a thumbs up, indicating a satisfied conductor.
Other interesting CUES and CLUES include:
1. The sudden, intense tapping on the chest to indicate the correct TEMPO.
2. The index finger pointing up, up, up bidding the singers not to sing FLAT.
3. The sudden grabbing of the cheeks to thrust the lips FORWARD (creating
fish lips) hoping to quickly better the vowel sound.
4. The frantic arching of the hands and arms in the "I'm a Little Teapot"
stance to urge the singers towards a more perfect placement of the tone.
5. The conductor holds his arms still with palms flat in the STOP! pose
indicating that "nobody had better move or even breathe until I give the
Conductors are fascinating to watch. To the untrained eye, their motions may seem clueless and even comical, but to the trained choral singer, all of those idiosyncrasies are full of deep meaning and have power to build great performances. We performers depend on those quirky CUES and CLUES!