On the Interpretation of Gesture
I recently had the pleasure of reading a very interesting dissertation about gender and choral conducting by Michelle Sampson, a recent graduate from Roehampton University. I’m not going to comment just yet on her primary findings since there are plans afoot to publish the study and I don’t want to steal her thunder, but she has given me permission to write about a specific observation that I found particularly fascinating.
Part of the research process involved asking both singers and conductors to comment on video footage of conductors in action (in rehearsal and/or performance). This is what Michelle noted about this process:
I observed that when the singers watched the video clips, they could usually write down immediately what the conductor wanted the singer to do. When they tried to describe the physical gestures, however, they needed to view the clips a number of times, and copy the gestures themselves, to explain to themselves what was happening. Some choir respondents never understood that there was a difference; for them the meaning and the physical action were inextricable (…). Similarly the directors found it extremely difficult to explain the physicality of their actions verbally, without simply repeating their intention (and usually physically reliving the gesture).
This is a wonderful illustration of the way that gesture is understood both by gesturer and by watcher as transparently meaningful. The communicative content fills the gesture to the extent that its physical form is hardly perceptible.
At one level this isn't surprising. If you asked me to describe the movement of my tongue and lips as I spoke a sentence, or the movements of my finger joints as I played a scale I would have similar difficulties. The whole point about meaningful action is that the action itself becomes transparent to let the meaning through.
But what is particularly interesting here is the way that, for many of the respondents, the gestures remained inseparable from communicative intention even with repetition and analysis. This resonates with David McNeill’s thesis that thoughts start from a ‘growth point’, or moment of cognitive instability, and unfold simultaneously in syntactic and imagistic dimensions. In his terms, this means as a spoken sentence and a gesture, though I have argued in my choral conducting book that the same process is in play with musical gestures such as conducting – music is also a syntactically organised means of communication.
Thus, the participants in Michelle’s study had no problem recreating the whole thought, and articulating its verbal content from its gestural half (‘she wants it louder’), but had great difficulty seeing that gestural component as a separate entity in its own right. And my hunch is that this holistic perception of intention is precisely what makes conductor gesture effective. As Marco Iacoboni points out, our mirror neurons respond specifically to actions with a purpose – we join in with other people’s intentions, not simply their movements. If singers and conductors found it easy to perceive movements independently from their desired effects, it would be commensurately harder to act on them with that intuitive, real-time response that conductor gesture is designed to elicit.