Conducting

How shall we deal with Spontaneous Gesture?*

My thoughts on researching gesture, in response to a question at the research day at Dublin City University in November, produced, during the process of writing them down, two more things that needed thinking about. Such is the process of writing. The point that the kind of spontaneous, intuitive gestures that are the most interesting bits of conducting are not, by definition, subject to self-aware control, presents two practical problems. Well, at least two; I may think of more as I write today!

First is the point that varying the physical form of conducting gestures clearly does make a difference to choral sound, and that investigating the nature of these differences is clearly a useful area for choral research. How, then, might one devise a method to focus on this?

Second, is the question for teaching conducting of the relationship between spontaneous gesture and habit. What comes intuitively may or may not be helpful to singers. I spend a good deal of my life teaching conductors in trying to help them adjust habitual motions (often involving multiple body parts and/or extraneous tension) that are getting in the way of either the musical clarity of the gestures or the singers’ vocal production. The reason it is so hard to make these changes is that they are part and parcel of the conductors’ established modes of musical thought.

On Researching Gesture

Now all the events I had big writing projects for in autumn 2019 are over, it’s time to start processing the mountains of notes I took at them. Expect to see me referring back to theHands-On Choral Symposium in Aveiro and the Choral Research Day at Dublin City University every so often for the next few months. Both were both very friendly and very stimulating events, at which I was made to feel most welcome. It feels like I met more people who have read my choral conducting book during November 2019 than I had in the previous ten years!

Anyway, the first thing I wanted to blog about was to revisit a question I was asked during the round-table discussion in Dublin, and which I felt I didn’t handle terribly well. By the time my flight home was halfway across the Irish Sea I had mustered my thoughts into much better shape.

On Musical and Didactic Gestures

This is one of those posts that I was going to send someone a link to in order to explain an idea, then discovered I’d not written yet. It’s a concept I’ve referred to in passing over the years, but I guess the reason I’ve not blogged about it is because I developed the idea in some detail in my choral conducting book, which I finished writing a few months before starting this blog.

So, you could always buy my book and turn to page 130. I’ve just re-read that bit and it’s quite good, and includes some references to specific examples in the video footage that accompanies the book. But for those who need to know right now and can’t wait for the book to arrive…

The distinction between musical and didactic gestures derives from observations of conductors in action; it is one that appears in the gestural language across choral genres. The musical gesture is the expressive holistic embodiment of musical flow, the mode where the conductor ‘looks like the music itself’. Musical gestures are the source of nuance and characterisation in the choral performance.

Abcd Research Developments, Part 2

Having contemplated some broad themes in my previous post about the research strand at the recent abcd Choral Leaders Festival, I’d like to pick out a few interesting cross-references between the papers. There were four speakers reporting on projects undertaken for advanced degrees in the strand sessions, plus the plenary keynote presented by Dr Katie Overy, all of which addressed topics that would make choral practitioners say, ‘Ooh yes, we want to know about that!’

But it’s in the resonances between them that you really feel the value of a event like this, rather than just reading their findings as published articles. Not that I object to reading articles, you understand. The published format offers other strengths – the opportunity for the author to cover more detail, and for the reader to take time to think about things en route. But it doesn’t offer the same kind of creative opportunities as a live event, where the ways in which the papers bounce off each other spark insights beyond what they each offer individually.

So, here are the things that I came away wanting to think about further:

Winchester A Cappella Coaching Day

Traditional warm-up shotTraditional warm-up shotI spent Saturday working with Winchester A Cappella chorus on the music they will be taking to the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers Convention in the autumn. The chorus welcomed a new director last year after a period of some upheaval, and now that the working relationships are getting nicely settled in they were ready for some external input.

The ballad they are learning is one I arranged for a quartet back in 2011 without intending it for barbershop contest use, but the way that the Barbershop Harmony Society has deliberately relaxed its approach to judging style in order to encourage new repertoire in the last 6 years or so has moved it from the category of ‘not really quite barbershoppy enough’ to ‘actually, this will be fine’. So it will unexpectedly bump up my tally of contest premieres come October.

Director Coaching with Junction 14

Adjusting the conducting plane:: "Hold your plate of music low enough that you can pile it high and still see over the profiteroles"Adjusting the conducting plane:: "Hold your plate of music low enough that you can pile it high and still see over the profiteroles"Thursday evening took me down to Milton Keynes to work with the directing team of Junction 14 chorus. Both MD Hannah and her assistant Debbie have been regular participants in LABBS director training events, but they were after the extra depth and personalisation you get from being coached as a director along with the singers you work with regularly. This bring not only more one-to-one time, but the chance to enrol the chorus into the process of developing their directors.

For the truism that what a director does is directly mirrored by the chorus is balanced by a less often articulated truth that much of what a director habitually does is shaped by their singers. There are all kinds of interesting co-dependencies between a conductor and their ensemble, some of which are really helpful, others counter-productive. You can re-set the latter more readily by working with both ends of the relationship at the same time.

Practice Gadgets as Feedback Tools

The term ‘practice gadget’ is one coined by Daniel Coyle to refer to tactics people use to selectively increase the challenge of what they are working on. The archetypal example would be the way that the popular game of futsal trained up a generation of Brazilian football players, documented in his first book. Working on a smaller scale than soccer, and using a ball with significantly less bounce, futsal makes players work harder at ball-handling and team interaction, leading to a level of virtuosity that the larger, outdoor version of the game rarely fosters.

There is another dimension to the practice gadgets though, not just the amplification of challenge: they provide a feedback-rich experience. The physical interface with the activity talks back to you with a constant stream of information about how you’re getting on.

The Path Through the Trees

Today I am going to mull on an intriguing bit of advice Mo Field offered at LABBS Harmony College in April. She suggested that chorus directors show their singers ‘the path through the trees’. By this she meant that instead of focusing on the percussive events (the trees), we should give attention to the overall line of the music.

Now, traditional conducting technique is all about clarity - the director’s primary task is to keep everyone unambiguously together. Leonard Bernstein talked about this role as ‘glorified traffic cop’; I have been known to refer to it as the ‘sheepdog function’. On the face of it Mo’s advice would seem to directly contradict this received wisdom.

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