The Kermit Principle
Elbows are not useful body-parts for the choral conductor. Or at least, they are not helpful if they assert their presence in the conducting process. Clearly, having a joint between shoulder and wrist is useful, not just for the choral conductor, but for any human being who wishes to do things like scratch their head or put on a cardigan.
But the moment the elbow starts to be perceptibly present - if it flaps or sticks out - it starts to spoil the choral sound. Conductors who have sticky-out elbows produce a sound that is shallow and unsupported, the upper parts shrill and the lower parts foggy.
Conversely, conductors whose arms operate as integrated units, a clean line from shoulder to fingertip, undistorted by the protrusion of intermediate joints, produce a clean, resonant sound, with all parts integrated into an undistorted sound.
It is an interesting question as to why an integrated body in the director should produce an integrated sound from the choir - one that I address at rather greater length in my book on choral conducting. But at a practical level, we just need to know (a) that it is so, and (b) rather more importantly, how to achieve it.
A technique I use in my coaching of conductors is what I call the ‘Kermit Principle’. You see, Kermit is physically unable to stick his elbows out. His arms are attached to his body at the shoulders, and their movement is controlled from the wrist. As a result, his arms will always lie very naturally between these two points, wherever gravity puts them.
This is the effect we are after when we direct. Our arms are also attached to our bodies at the shoulder, and it is our hands that enact all the important stuff when it comes to directing a choir. Unlike Kermit, we do have muscles in our arms - indeed we need the muscles to do the directing in the absence of puppet masters controlling our wrists - but we don’t need to use these muscles to pull our arms out of the position that gravity would place them in were the muscles not there.
An exercise to explore this idea is to work with a partner. Hold their hands around about the height where they would hold them to direct and get them to hand over the weight of their arms to you. People rarely manage this immediately; they keep supporting their own weight with their own arm muscles, but bit by bit they can let go and you will feel the full weight of their arms.
Once you have that, start to move their hands around. Once again, they may try and anticipate where you are going, and you will feel their arms get lighter, but a little persistence will turn them into Kermit and you into his operator. This allows both of you to see/experience where the elbow lies when it is not being pulled out of line by habit.
Then, of course, swap over so you both get to see it from the other perspective. Such is the way of working with partners.
Another useful bit of imagery can be to imagine that your hands are attached to your body, and therefore operated from, the small of your back rather than your shoulders. I don’t know of any mega-star puppets who are built like this to provide a name for the method, so I am just appending it as a footnote to Kermit. It is an idea that has the same purpose, after all.