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How shall we deal with Spontaneous Gesture?*

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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.

Interestingly, it was experience teaching conducting that gave me some ideas for questions of research method. An approach I’ll often use to focus people’s attention onto the musical effects of their conducting gestures is to pare the musical content right down to individual sounds, which then allows the opportunity to repeat them multiple times. For example, to focus on the clarity/accuracy of the ictus, I’ll have people direct the group saying ‘t-t-t-t-t’: it is immediately apparent if the t’s aren’t coming together and the process of near-miss and adjustment hones the skills very efficiently.

Or I’ll have people direct the onset and release of sound on a single vowel. Repetition allows not only increased fluency with the physical motions, but the opportunity to tune the ears into the subtle variations in sound association with slight differences in movement. Thus you build the responsive feedback loop between ear and gesture that allows you to respond to the singers’ needs in real time. And of course, for both of these exercises, the opportunity to watch and respond to others is as much part of the learning process as doing the gestures yourself.

Analysing video footage of this kind of activity strikes me as a promising approach to research. On the one hand, it captures the interactions of real people who are engaging in the kind of mutual responsiveness that is the essence of conducting. On the other, it has stripped down the content of the activity to leave a clear basis for comparison between multiple versions of essentially the same gestural-musical event.

The second question, about how you triangulate between the need on one hand to assert conscious control over gesture when refining your technique and the need to focus your attention on the singers and the music, with the gestures emerging as a holistic part of the musical thought process, turns out on reflection to have quite a simple solution: practice. Working on your technique away from the singers, slowing things down, carefully repeating the bits you need to assert control over – these are the routes to mastery for conductors in much the same way for any performing musician.

A pianist doesn’t want to be thinking about fingering patterns when they get into rehearsal with the other two members of a trio; likewise a conductor doesn’t want to be thinking about the relationship between pattern and cueing when they get into rehearsal with their choir.

Having said that, you do also get that process of repeating pared-down material in rehearsal: when you need to isolate and repeat bits for everyone to clarify what’s going on, or in warm-up exercises that double as skill-development drills. These are opportunities for the director to recreate for themselves the kind of learning experience I discussed above. The Lock and Ring exercise my chorus uses each week to refocus the ears after the break is also my opportunity to focus on my neck and lower back in resetting my conducting posture: when the overtones start to play round the ceiling I know that both brains and bodies are back in the musical zone.


*Sung to the tune of ‘What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor?’, obvs.
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