Nicolas Fink. (Photo courtesy of Goethe Institut Indonesia)

In Salatiga, a Study in Choral Conducting Leads to Transformation


SEPTEMBER 27, 2016

Jakarta. At a viewer's glance, the work of a choral conductor is perhaps similar to a signal police, but with gracious cues and movements that sync perfectly along the musical notes.

However, for members of the choir, as well as advanced listeners, the connection between the group and the leader of the pack is essential. The conductor is the heart and soul of the performance. The same choir may produce different sounds under different conductors. Such example was seen during the concert at Satya Wacana Christian University in Salatiga, Central Java, on Thursday (22/09).

In the concert, 11 Indonesian conductors from different cities, ages and backgrounds took turns to lead the university's choirs for an hour and a half of German repertoire featuring the works of Anton Bruckner, Josef Gabriel Rheinberger, Johannes Brahms and Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. Every conductor's cue and emotional expression become the center of attention because all of them have just finished a week of intensive choral conducting workshop with Nicolas Fink.

Nicolas Fink. (Photo courtesy of Goethe Institut)

"It has been an intense, tiring, but very rewarding experience for me," said Fink, who has conducted the Berlin Radio Chorus, as well as the radio choruses of MDR Leipzig and WDR Cologne, the Choeur de Radio France and the Coro Casa de Musica Porto, among many others. "I think we've been very lucky. We didn't really know what to expect and as it turned out, we have some big talents."

Organized by the Goethe Institut in Jakarta, the weeklong workshop is a follow-up of their joint choir program in 2015 and part of their main focus to contribute to the cultural infrastructure in Southeast Asia. After the choir program last year, Goethe Institut Indonesia director Heinrich Blomeke said a conducting workshop is another way to strengthen the quality of Indonesian choirs. He also understands that the responsibility to lead a group of singers may intimidate new conductors and make conducting a lonely job.

"You need musical knowledge but you also need to be a leader; be somebody who motivate people," he said. "They need to get feedback and in this workshop, not only can they learn from Fink, but they can also observe and discuss with other participants," he said.

Blomeke said choral music has strong roots in German culture that dates back to the time when there was strong demand for choirs in churches. In the 19th century, more choir groups existed outside churches and they were no longer related to religious service. The repertoire in the Salatiga concert included the six-part Opus 48: "Fruhlingsahnung" by Mendelssohn, which tells of the joy of spring.

"To sing together was a part of the social life for the middle class in Germany in the 19th century, and this tradition has continued since then," Blomeke said.

Swiss-born Fink proposed the idea of doing a conducting workshop after finishing his mentorship in last year's program.

"This is my fifth visit to Indonesia. I noticed the level of choral singing is extremely high, but I also noticed that for most conductors, in order to get formal training, they have to go abroad," he said. "I think it's a shame because the singing is so good here. Conductors need to live up to the expectations."

In recent years, Indonesian choirs were beginning to show their mettle by winning international competitions, but this achievement is hardly followed by a proper formal education in choral conducting. Faculty of music in universities such as Satya Wacana and Pelita Harapan, as well as private music schools such as Musicasa Studio in Jakarta, do offer a lesson in conducting, but it is still considered minor compared to other programs.

Most of the cases, conductors in Indonesian choirs are chosen based on skills in previous positions and hardly due to their knowledge in choral conducting. Three participants in the program, Benyamin Franklin, Caspar Tan and Eriyani Tenga Lunga, said they were chosen because their choirs are lacking qualified members with the ability to lead the group and present the music.

"Conductors usually come from church choirs. They are talented, but they operate organically, not through a formal training," said Caspar, member of the Gita Swara Jaya choir from Atmajaya Catholic university.

Eriyani, who is also the soloist soprano of Satya Wacana choir, said it took her a great amount of strength to overcome her feelings and be able to stand on the conductor's spot.

"Even though you know everyone in the choir well, you'd still feel nervous. Once you stand in front of them, it all seems different," she said.

For Fink, a good conductor requires a good musicianship as well as emotional maturity to do music.

"As conductors, we are always alone," Fink said. "We're the ones who tell people what to do in a rehearsal. The good conductor just brings all elements together."

Fink corrects a wrong gesture from Sarah. (Photo courtesy of Goethe Institut Indonesia)

Prior to the workshop, each participant saw their responsibilities as a conductor differently. Benyamin would put his choir in a serious drill of time-consuming rehearsal to fix a single mistake. For 21-year-old Sarah Charista Winata, a student at Pelita Harapan University, a conductor must have full control of the choir. She used to wonder why the choir she leads failed to follow her cues.

"I felt like the choir often sang on their own and I was just there, flapping my hands around. I would make this strangling hand movement because I thought I had to control them. And that was my problem. I was too controlling, too flappy, my movements are too hectic," she said. "It all changes when I am told that I have to trust them to sing," Sarah said.

In a workshop session with Fink, Sarah and other participants learned to lead an effective rehearsal session through body gestures and facial expressions. Many problems, he said, are created by conductors for giving unnecessary or unclear gestures to the singers. According to Fink, one of the things that may destroy the communication between the choir and the conductor is when they mouth the lyric and make faces that they will never do in real life.

Fink also forbade all participants to blame the choir whenever they make a mistake.

"A good conductor knows they got it wrong and had to do something different. A bad conductor will always blame the choir," he said.

Fink said he loves conducting because it allows him to connect with strangers from different cultures in an interesting and quite intimate process. In one of his exercises, he put participants in pairs and made them stare and smile at each other.

"If I look at you in the eyes, and I give you an upbeat, and I smile, I just gave you a message that I like what you're doing, so let's do it together," he said. "On the next day, it was amazing how well the choir sang!"

Forty-year-old Benyamin, who has been a conductor of a Jakarta-based choir for 10 years, said the workshop works like a mental transformation for him.

"Choir rehearsal is usually boring, but now I have learned to keep it interesting. As soon as the group begin to lose interest in a song or in a particular bar, you have to make them sing something else," he said. "Now we understand that it's all about efficiency."