All Ship-Shape and...
I spent a happy day on Saturday coaching Bristol Fashion chorus and their director of two years, Craig Kehoe. As I was there for the whole day, we had plenty of time to explore their music in some depth, including work on different types of swing, embellishment strategies, the relationship between emotion and vocal colour, as well as some of the more colourful harmonies.
The area I spent most time thinking about on the way home, though, was our exploration of the relationship between Craig’s gestures and the singers’ voices.
First of all, we had Craig just directing a single chord several times in order to listen in detail to the sound that his gestures elicited. Four or five repetitions were enough to significantly increase his level of control over the onsets and releases. He then experimented with subtly adjusting his hands during the sustained chords to see how the sound changed. One gesture intended to increase the volume actually had some voices moving sharpwards. But again, it took very little time before he was starting to adjust balance and tone colour within the chord gesturally.
What I love about this exercise is that it gets the director out of the analytical, verbal part of their brain and into the holistic, intuitive bit. The kinds of changes he was making to the sound were far too subtle and complex to be achievable by explicit instruction, yet they are much more rewarding for both director and singers than analytical work because they bring not just correctness to the result, but beauty too. A few minutes spent doing this on a regular basis can dramatically increase both the director’s aural acuity and gestural refinement, and the chorus’s capacity to perceive and respond to gesture.
We also explored, in several musical contexts, textures where one part was holding a note while the others had moving parts. It was very striking that when Craig kept his left hand in the sound stream to support the long note, the singers performed it much better: more confidently, and with more freedom and resonance in the voices. Tempting as it might be to feel that once the long note is started, those singers are effectively ‘parked’ there and one can turn one’s two-handed attention to the folk who have breaths to take and word sounds and chord changes to coordinate and rhythms to execute, the people on the long note just don’t sound as good if they’re not directed – even if they have nothing else to do.
But of course, the folk on the long note have plenty to do. Sustained notes are often some of the more vocally demanding parts to sing. Indeed, the primary purpose of writing a long note in a vocal arrangement is to make an opportunity for singers to show off – both the sheer glory of the sound they can make, and their technical prowess in sustaining it over spans of musical time. So while there may be nothing in the quantitative dimension of music to direct (music as particle in the terms of my light metaphor), there’s plenty in the qualitative dimension (music as wave).
And conducting gesture is not only about signalling instructions, it is also part of how a conductor thinks about music. When a director removes their gestural connection with a part of the musical texture, that is a symptom of their having also removed their attention from it. Hand independence for the conductor is not merely a technical matter of how to control their limbs, that is, but a musical matter of thinking about independent musical elements simultaneously. So it’s not surprising should a section with a long note sing it more diffidently if they feel their director is ignoring them. On the other hand (so to speak), physically keeping a hand connected to the long note actually helps the conductor keep hearing them.
But I have a hunch that the positive effect Craig had when he kept his hand in the sound was not only the psychological function of moral support. Craig directs held notes with long-fingered hands, and with wrists without kinks in them, and I think that this actively promotes vocal freedom in the singers. And, as he demonstrated in the first exercise, he has the capacity to inflect his hand shapes to improve the sound. The mechanism by which this connection between hand and voice happens is something I touch on very briefly in my recent book, and will be exploring in more detail in a paper for the Phenomenon of Singing Symposium in Labrador this July. As I have writing that paper scheduled for this month, I really appreciated the chance to explore it in practice with such willing and responsive people as Craig and Bristol Fashion!