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A look behind the music: 3 EKU conductors explain the craft

Dr. Richard Waters  conducts a Kentucky Bach Choir rehearsal.
Cheri Lawson
/
WEKU
Dr. Richard Waters conducts a Kentucky Bach Choir rehearsal.

Conductors can usually be seen leading an orchestra or choral group. But what is behind the high-profile position that guides musicians or singers as they bring a piece of music to life?

Three Eastern Kentucky University professors who are also conductors talk about the art of conducting.

His arms move through the air with passion and intention as Dr. Richard Waters conducts the Kentucky Bach Choir at the First Presbyterian Church in Lexington.

Waters has been conducting choirs for 30 years. He’s the artistic director of the Kentucky Bach Choir, which he says, is the only choir statewide dedicated to J.S. Bach. Waters is also director of choral activities at Eastern Kentucky University where he conducts two choirs. In addition, he conducts a church choir in Richmond. Conducting, says Waters, is the epitome of multitasking.

“Stripped down to its barest essentials, the right hand is showing time, how fast or slow, how loud or soft, and style in terms of how pointed and precise it is or how smooth and flowing it is. Then my left hand could be doing any one of those things to help augment that and help reinforce that or my left hand may be saying to the sopranos, it’s your turn to sing now, or over to the tenors and now it’s your turn or to reinforce this is a really big moment and my hand is way up in the air just to encourage everyone to be at their strongest dynamic level,” explained Waters.

On this day Waters is front and center at the Kentucky Bach Choir rehearsal. His right arm is stretched out in front of him holding a white stick referred to as a baton. His left arm is lifted and slightly stretched out with his palm up indicating a request of the ensemble. Waters is passionate about his task.

”For me, I feel it’s a lot more than just waving your arms in front of people. A conductor is a conduit between the performers and the audience, between the composer and the performers. A conductor is a leader,” said Waters.

Dr. Rebekah Daniel and Dr. Richard Waters co-teach a class in conducting at EKU.
Cheri Lawson
/
WEKU
Dr. Rebekah Daniel and Dr. Richard Waters co-teach a class in conducting at EKU.

At EKU Waters co-teaches conducting with Dr.Rebekah Daniel. It’s a Wednesday morning at the University where Waters and Daniel guide music majors in the rehearsal room in the Foster Music building. The students are learning the art of conducting.

“Yeah, so basically, we sort of do a master class setting. So, the student goes onto the podium. And they basically take over the ensemble. They start them and they take them through it and then we give them some feedback,” explained Daniel.

Daniel pays attention to the student’s posture, their movement, and the emotion with which they conduct.

Dr. Rebekah Daniel teaches graduate and undergraduate-level conducting at EKU.
Cheri Lawson
/
WEKU
Dr. Rebekah Daniel teaches graduate and undergraduate-level conducting at EKU.

Daniel is the director of bands at EKU. She said her role is teaching graduate and undergraduate-level conducting. She tells what it’s like for her backstage before she takes the stage to conduct.

“We’re conductors but we’re also thinking about execution. We’re thinking about production. We’re thinking about energy. We’re thinking about timing. So, the tuning pitch stops and then I wait just a little bit for the audience to kind of settle and almost create this sense of mystery of like what is this silence? What might happen next? And then the door opens," said Daniel.

EKU professor Dr. David Galant also teaches conducting in his role as director of orchestra. Galant explains that students are first taught the basics of the craft. He says gestures are important in conducting and have different emotions or connotations.

“ I puff my chest out in the air confidently, feeling victorious, right? And I look at the brass and I do that. They’re going to give me a sound that’s different than if I were to curl inside and hurt my breath support. But all of these gestures that I’m creating have an impact on the sound that I’m going to get,” said Galant.

Dr. David Galant talks about the importance of gestures in conducting.
Cheri Lawson
/
WEKU
Dr. David Galant talks about the importance of gestures in conducting.

Galant said each conductor adds their personality when conducting. He said he likes to think of the conductor as a chef.

“Like if I’m making spaghetti and meatballs, I’m taking the meatball and the sauce and the spaghetti, right? And you can look at that as the different players that you have. And putting it together is the piece. The way I might cook spaghetti and meatballs might be different than the way Rebekah cooks spaghetti and meatballs. It’s the same piece of music, it tastes different with two different people,” said Galant.

Galant, Daniel, and Waters say that the conductor’s movements, posture, and demeanor are all a big part of guiding an ensemble through a piece of music. They all agree with Dr Richard Waters that, preparation is key.

“It’s all of the work that David and Rebekah and I do behind the scenes both before rehearsal and here by ourselves and in rehearsal to get everything ready for that culminating moment where we go out on stage and perform for everyone else. As a conductor or a player, it’s about human connection," said Waters.

Grad student Henry Heydinger receives guidance from Dr. Richard Waters at EKU.
Cheri Lawson
/
WEKU
Grad student Henry Heydinger receives guidance from Dr. Richard Waters at EKU.

It is possible to get a conducting degree. Waters says most conducting degrees are graduate-level degrees.

** WEKU is working hard to be a leading source for public service, and fact-based journalism. Monthly supporters are the top funding source for this growing nonprofit news organization. Please join others in your community who support WEKU by making your donation.Lexington/Richmond

Cheri is a broadcast producer, anchor, reporter, announcer and talk show host with over 25 years of experience. For three years, she was the local host of Morning Edition on WMUB-FM at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Cheri produced and hosted local talk shows and news stories for the station for nine years. Prior to that, she produced and co-hosted a local talk show on WVXU, Cincinnati for nearly 15 years. Cheri has won numerous awards from the Public Radio News Directors Association, the Ohio and Kentucky Associated Press, and both the Cincinnati and Ohio chapters of the Society for Professional Journalists.
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