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Moving Parts en Masse: Conducting Class Takes Center Stage

Davidson Music Professor and Orchestra Director Tara Villa Keith recently passed the baton – literally – to the students in her spring conducting class. As the culmination of the semester-long class, the students directed the Davidson College Orchestra for a special public performance in the Duke Family Performance Hall, leading the roughly 50-member ensemble in performing repertoire from Beethoven's 7th Symphony, Grieg's Norweigan Dances and Peer Gynt, and Vaughan Williams's English Folk Song Suite.

But long before the students took the stage, they were hard at work preparing for their conducting debuts.

The first challenge was to work on the mechanics – students practiced baton technique, and moving their right and left hands independently (which all insist is harder than it looks). They also learned ways to convey information through body language and facial expressions, and to do all of that simultaneously, and all while reading and adhering to a musical score displaying parts for each instrument.

Their conducting is further informed by the extensive research they do about the composers and the history surrounding their pieces, as well as their own unique interpretations of the music.

On top of all the things the students must do in real time on stage, they also need to be thinking ahead to anticipate what's coming in the score, as well as thinking back to the sounds they've just heard, identifying elements to fix and determining how and when they are going to fix them.

And they need to do it all in front of a live audience.

Keith said conducting is one of her favorite classes to teach because of the wide variety of students it draws (many are not music majors) and the multiple real-world applications there are for the skills they learn in class.