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Clarity of Concept, Clarity of Gesture

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I recently had some correspondence with a director who asked me for feedback on her technique after I’d been working with her chorus, and it took us into territory that feels like other directors might also be interested in. So, I’m doing the further thinking about it I promised to do publicly here.

It started with an observation I made about how she came over in action:

I observe that when your musical concept is clearer, your gestures are more neat and precise and it takes less effort to communicate. So it may be that when you are finding the physical coordination more difficult, that is a signal that you need to clarify your musical concepts more. That is a working hypothesis rather than an absolute, but one which there is no downside to exploring.

She replied that she found this plausible, and that in fact it was sometimes developing the musical concept itself that presented the challenge:

I find it sometimes quite hard, to work out a clear musical concept in such detail. And which is the right or best one? How do I determine this? Sometimes I have a concept and it doesn´t work as I think. And some things I feel I can only discover when working with the chorus.

Which I think we will agree are a good set of questions. I don’t think there is a single magic answer to any of them, but I have spent some time thinking about them, and collected together a miscellany of suggestions, gleaned from advice in the conducting literature, as filtered through my own experience and conversations with other directors.

  • Use gesture quite freely as you sing to yourself whilst preparing the music. Gesture is an inherent part of the thinking process, and the spontaneous gestures that emerge as you think through the music will help crystallise your thinking. These gestures may in turn feed into conducting gestures, but in the first instance they are simply about developing your ideas.
  • Where there are multiple possibilities, try out the whole range, even exaggerating that range beyond what you’d consider plausible. You don’t have to rush to a decision, and living with all the possibilities as viable options gives your intuition more to work with. When you’ve slept on it, or after a long walk, your brain will have sifted through that experience and you may find yourself absent-mindedly singing the version it prefers.
  • Feed your imagination by listening to as many different versions of the music as you can find. Different arrangements of the piece, different performances of a particular arrangement. You don’t need to store this experience in your conversant memory, but if there are things you respond to strongly (either positively or negatively) it is worth spending a bit of time analysing why you respond that way, as it will help clarify your own feelings about the music.
  • You need to have done this groundwork before working with the choir, but it is a totally valid approach to treat rehearsal as an extension of the discovery process. Invite the singers to gesture along with you when do this, as this will allow you to see what they are making of the musical ideas as they develop: what they find awkward or natural, what they are adapting and making their own.
  • Workshopping with your section leaders can be a useful way to check the viability and clarity of your ideas before taking them into full rehearsal
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