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Choral conducting tips from one of the nation's top choir directors

In Michael Schwartzkopf's Choral Conducting class at Indiana University's 37th annual Mini University (June 15-20), the audience got a backstage pass into the inner workings of the well-known conductor's techniques. He warmed up the audience with some facial and body movements -- and a story.

Michael Schwartzkopf

Schwartzkopf demonstrates conducting methods.

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"Every morning, the head monk would go before all the monks and say 'morning,'" Schwartzkopf said with a smile, chanting a drawn out "MORning."

"And every evening he would go before the monks and say 'EVEning.' One morning one monk -- after what must have been a long night for him -- sang 'evening' when everyone else chanted 'morning.' The head monk said, 'Someone chanted evening,'" Schwartzkopf sang (to the tune of the show tune from South Pacific).

The joke set the tone for an informative, lighthearted session that included vocal exercises, the subtle meaning assigned to various gestures in conducting, the importance of facial expression and even a few things to avoid (don't bend your knees, and definitely don't mouth the words -- you could disrupt the rhythm or make a mistake).

Prior to teaching the class, Schwartzkopf, a Jacobs School of Music professor and interim chair of the Department of Choral Conducting, spoke with Live at IU about trying to distill the principles of good conducting -- vocal techniques, using left or right hand to get different sound or dynamic, how to mark a breath on a score, where a consonant is placed at the end of a phrase -- in just a one-hour class period.

Choral Conducting

Schwartzkopf warms up with the Mini U students.

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"To touch this topic in one hour is impossible," said Schwartzkopf prior to the course. "But I'm going to give people in the audience an overview of what is actually involved with being a choral conductor and how much body language is important for making music and how we develop sound. I'll also talk about some aspects of stylistic periods, from Renaissance to baroque, classic to contemporary."

Schwartzkopf has conducted choirs and sung on concert stages in cathedrals across the United States and Europe and acts as president of the Central Division of the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA).

With the Singing Hoosiers, the Grammy-nominated IU student group that he conducts and directs, Schwartzkopf has traveled throughout the United States -- and in recent years, to England and Greece. The Singing Hoosiers recently celebrated its 58th year in concert. Many Singing Hoosiers move on to sing professionally after graduation. Some even end up living the biggest dream possible, singing on Broadway: Former singing Hoosiers with recent turns on Broadway include Elizabeth Stanley, who recently starred in Cry Baby; Steve Morgan, who appeared in Mama Mia; and Joe Komara, who was in a recent revival of Grease.

Schwartzkopf wrapped up the Mini University session by conducting the class as they sang "Hail to Old IU" and "Chimes of Indiana" by Hoagy Carmichael.

The songs brought a smile to his face -- and the faces in the audience. "Making and molding music with people who like to sing is what I love to do," he said.