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On Conductor Stillness

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In stand-up comedy, there are two schools of thought about the use of the stage. One is that you should keep moving as that forces people into maintaining attention - they can't drift off because they won't know exactly where you'll be when they look up again. The other is that you should stand still, as that is a position of power on the stage.

In conducting, there's only really one school of thought. Everyone agrees that getting rid of extraneous movement is the ideal, although every over-active conductor also remarks how hard this is to achieve.

The reasons for this element of best practice are twofold. First, conductor stillness promotes better ensemble. It is easier for the ensemble to stay with you if you present less of a moving target, and most issues with synchronisation result from musicians picking up subliminally mixed messages about timing from different parts of your body. (It is virtually impossible to tap your foot at exactly the same time as you beat time, as the two movements use levers of such different lengths.)

Second, an over-active conductor distracts the audience. The director is there to facilitate the ensemble, and it is the ensemble's job to communicate with the audience. Except in those moments in show genres where the director turns round and temporarily joins the ensemble, he or she is conceptually invisible.

There are two main reasons why conductors develop the habit of charging around the place gesticulating wildly. First, it's because because of the role that gesture plays in musical thought. Conducting is not just a matter of making hand-signals to instruct and ensemble what to do when, it's part of the medium through which musical shape and musical meaning is felt and understood. (See Part III of my choral conducting book for more on this.)

The second reason is that their ensembles train them into it. If at first you do a gesture and get a muted response, you tend to try a bigger, 'louder' version of the same gesture. If the musicians routinely wait to respond until you start to flail, then it becomes a habitual part of the relationship between you. Such ensembles, indeed, may resist attempts to rein in the over-conducting, saying how much they love the director's energy. Well, yes, I'm sure they do, but the conductor's role is to facilitate the ensemble, not merely to entertain them. I think the comparison with stand-up comedy is useful here: it makes you realise that a conductor who presents a moving target is in some sense constantly bidding for attention that should be inherent in the conventions of the relationship anyway.

The first reason in isolation probably won't result in over-conducting; it takes the second to amplify felt gestural shapes into exaggerated ones. But the conductor may nonetheless experience the quietening-down of motion as a damping down of their musical feelings.

So that has been my understanding of the situation for some time, but I recently had a mild revelation while observing conductors that will probably look very obvious as soon as I write it down. Such is the nature of penny-drop moments.

What I noticed was this: the moments that intermittently over-active conductors become very still are when they are listening most carefully. These are also the moments when the sound becomes the most clear, well-defined and well-balanced, and the moments where the gestures are most subtle, nuanced and alive. And it made me realise that the standard arguments for conductor stillness are couched largely in terms of their sheep-dog function (keeping everyone together) rather than their artistic or imaginative functions.

That is, the usual argument has a causal structure that says:
Which is true, but disguises a more interesting and useful causal structure:
This gives both an additional motivation for conductor stillness and - more importantly - an approach to it that won't be experienced as inhibiting musical thought. It re-casts excess movement as a symptom of shallow listening, and stillness as a by-product of depth of attention. It focuses development on extending the ears rather than on restricting the limbs.

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