I have been dabbling with this mystical and underrated phenomenon called ‘Conducting’ since 2006. As a school boy at St. Stanislaus, Bandra, I conducted my schoolmates for carol singing at homes for the aged. While studying at St. Xavier’s College, I put up choirs for carol competitions and religious services, also gathering student musicians to accompany. My choice of out-of-the-box repertoire came from long hours of online searches and emails to composers and publishers begging for free music. Eventually, I founded the Xavier College Chorus which went on to record an Indian Choral Music album called ‘Vara Sapta Swara’ and take part in another project I founded, the Strings Concert Tour Project in 2011. A very important push came from Paraguay’s Maestro Luis Szarán, who acknowledged my conducting and the preparation of the choir for the challenging repertoire that he is an authority on. The orchestra featured in this mammoth project was from a town in the Himalayas – The Gandhi Ashram School Orchestra. Shortly after that, my volunteering at the school gave me experience in string instruments, working with children in a choral and orchestral setting. From arranging choral pieces for quartets for the children to experience their teachers performing, to putting up the musical, Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, working out an orchestration from just vocal and piano scores, I conducted an orchestra, a band, a children’s choir and a teenage choir all at the same time. I had taken a huge leap forward as an amateur conductor.
My work was noticed in the USA and I received an invitation to apply to tour for 6 months with the Singers of United Lands in 2012. I got a chance to conduct choirs of all age groups, sizes, settings, regions and abilities. This is where I drew connections between music education and performance as a conductor. The next six years at the Cathedral and John Connon School in Mumbai provided a chance to implement all this learning with a choir of a hundred 7 to 10 year-olds (working on children’s repertoire in over 50 different languages) and a choir of around seventy 13 to 18 year olds (singing anglican hymns, Christmas music as well as my compositions). I also scouted for student musicians to form ensembles to accompany these choirs.
This journey caught the eyes (and ears) of the Education Director at the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation who offered me a training opportunity. Thus, my first formal conducting technique sessions began with Alba Millán Sánchez and then for the next year, Mariona Fernandez Blanco from the Palau de la Música Catalana while practising my conducting with the Middle Choirs. Arm angle, Beat patterns, Cues and simple gestures for dynamics and tempo along with some rehearsal techniques helped me feel more confident that I was doing justice to the choirs I conducted at the school and at the foundation. There was no looking back.
As the next step on my journey, I started looking out for opportunities to get certified but could not spend time on a degree. A friend request on Facebook and a random post requesting mentorship in conducting resulted in a UK-based conductor, Manvinder Rattan inviting me to apply for a Conducting Course in the UK. After a few exchanges and exploring the possibilities, I applied and was accepted to the Intermediate 2 Conducting Course at the Sing For Pleasure (SfP) Summer School 2018. It was held at Keele University, Staffordshire, UK between August 11 and 19, 2018. My participation was made possible by the Neil Webster Music Trust UK and the Associazione Culturale Sarasvati, Italy to whom I am indebted.
Before arriving at the course, I was asked to prepare three pieces – The Angel Rolled the Stone (A Spiritual arranged by James Wild) and Amazing Grace (John Newton, Arranged by Steven Milloy) which I would be conducting and a study exercise – Deo Gratias (William Byrd). A guide to score markings and some course related guidelines got me ready.
I arrived at the beautiful Keele University campus and was welcomed with introductions, course expectations and fun warm up activities. The next day however, I was in for a shock when I had to sight sing a whole lot of repertoire for the concert in two days – Zelenka’s Magnificat, Rutter’s Five Childhood Lyrics, conducted by the tutors and rehearsed in two sessions of an hour each. At the same time, I had to sight sing the pieces conducted by the other conducting students in the Intermediate 2 course, which for my group included songs from the Heritage Book (SfP future publication) and An American Journey (Oxford University Press) as well as a Christmas Mass composed by Oliver Tarney. I had to give up some evening social activities and wake up earlier to work on preparing my scores in the expected way and try to tackle sight singing the bass lines, especially the motets with the Advanced Conducting Students by Bach and Buxtehude.
I was getting nervous, looking more into my score than at the choir and not really knowing what I was to do with my non dominant hand. My tutors, Catherine Beddison and Katy Cooper were very supportive of me since I had not attended the Foundation and Intermediate 1 levels, thus missing out on some skills that were not unknown to the other conducting students. A very important challenge was using the tuning fork to give notes to the choir. I attended a session that helped me with getting my head around this. I was exhausted by the second day! But on the third day, I mustered all courage and decided that I was going to be as confident as possible. This resulted in a visible positive change in my use of the 7 minutes I had to work on each of my pieces in a day. I was getting more and more in control of the two pieces that I was conducting for the concerts on two separate days. I did, in the end sacrifice most of the technique I had learnt while conducting at the concerts, but I was happy that I could point out exactly where the errors were.
Post the concerts, we began working on the third piece. Mine, the William Byrd composition, I liked very much but did not know how to conduct. I prepared very well for that piece, using all the phrase markings and entry markings as taught. This piece was only for conducting study and was taken up by Manvinder Rattan. He praised me for my preparation and gave me a few tips. We then moved on to a large work commissioned especially for the Summer School – Greater Love: 12 Ways of Goodness – Music by Thomas Hewitt Jones and words by Jasmine Birtles. Sight Singing this modern work was a challenge for even the good sight singers. But I sailed through that concert which marked the end of the Summer School.
At Sing for Pleasure, it is very evident that the organisation is very serious about its work. It values quality as well as wants to ensure that the most is made out of a week of Summer School in terms of styles of learning from over 15 faculty and over a 100 attendees, variety of repertoire, number of choral and conducting experience. It is quite intense and rigorous. Highly structured, yet delivered with a sense of care and commitment. At this unique Summer School, I learnt much more than conducting from a professional perspective. I was exposed to diverse and rich repertoire, learnt good vocal technique and high pressure rehearsal technique. It was interesting to note how much can be achieved in a 7 minute rehearsal!
I am now looking ahead to my permanent move to Kalimpong and setting up an arts organisation there. I am also excited to take over as the Music Program Director at the Gandhi Ashram School where I will be conducting the school orchestras and the choirs. In November, I am conducting a workshop for vocal leaders and conducting my composition ‘The Goodwill Song’ for the Goodwill Week. Come January, I will conduct the Strings Orchestra for an exciting tour of five towns in the Hills of Darjeeling and Sikkim as well as a tour of Mumbai, through the Strings Concert Tour Project. Many more exciting collaborations and projects are already in the pipeline – that celebrate good music, bring people together, educate audiences and help me rediscover my passion all over again. Going back to Summer School? Definitely better prepared Sing For Pleasure style!