Celebrate with Singing and Movement

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Every year, Zemel Choir holds workshop day called ‘Celebrate with Song’ at which they invite visitors to join them for a day of music-making in preparation for a concert a couple of weeks later. This year, they invited me to come and lead a workshop on ‘Singing and Movement’ during the afternoon. It ran twice, each time with half the participants, while the others spent the time with expert on Russian and East European traditions of Jewish music, Polina Skovoroda-Shepherd.

Short workshops like this always present of the dilemma of how you balance the big-picture value of exploring skills and ideas with the goal-directed needs of preparing people for a performance. This dilemma is heightened when a significant number of participants have a relatively brief space of time in which to absorb all the repertoire in the first place - they may not have a lot of cognitive space left to think about other parts of the body.

So we kept the focus tight. We started with the first principles of why movement may be a good addition to singing - i.e. to facilitate the voice, to facilitate the music, and to give visual interest to the audience. We then worked on two contrasting pieces, which invited rather different approaches to movement.

The first was a setting of Psalm 150 that drew heavily on the gospel tradition for its rhythmic and expressive shape. This naturally invited the kind of lower-body engagement that gospel choirs routinely use. A step-sway motion - slow and wide for the opening section, faster and tighter when the tempo quickened - not only marks the rhythm, but characterises it. The shared body language facilitates a shared experience of musical shape. It also supports the voice of course: singing can’t help but be a whole-body activity when the whole body is involved.

The second piece was an arrangement of Tom Lehrer’s ‘Chanukah in Santa Monica’. The heart of this piece is the wit of the lyric, which invites the use of gesture to highlight the verbal content. It would be very easy to turn this into a very busy presentation, as there’s so much going on, but the need to keep things quick to learn was a useful brake on the temptation to over-do it.

Gestures are more meaningful in song when they are more akin to the way we use gestures in speech. Every spontaneous gesture has a preparation, a stroke (where the central action occurs), and a retraction - and the stroke coincides with the word that the speaker considers the central idea of a sentence. So if you put a separate gesture on every sub-clause, every internal rhyme, it will make the singers look rather manic as they articulate every intermediate concept. A somewhat more sparing approach is not just easier to learn, but easier to watch.

The other thing we were sparing with was pantomimic gestures - i.e. gestures that mimicked the action or form of the thing it described. In general conversation, we use these a bit, but we use more deictic (pointing) and logicotopographic (tracing our thoughts) gestures. So we used just a few pantomimic gestures, and concentrated them towards the end of the song where the musical/lyrical structure had its point of greatest intensity.

Another factor that encouraged both the relative parsimony of gestures and the preponderance of deictic ones was that only the regular Zemel Choir members were likely to be able to sing the piece without music, certainly at the start of the workshop. We needed moves that could be done while still holding the music for reference as we learned. And while it would be good if all the singers are able to get it off copy for the concert, they won’t be forced to if that is unrealistic.

You might think that holding the music would be an inhibiting factor to expression, that it prevents a relaxed and free performance of gestures. And there is that risk. At the same time, though, it encourages an approach to gesture that is neat and economical. Big gestures are expressively ‘shouting’, and a clever, witty song such as this does much better with subtlety and nuance. Someone holding the music is unlikely to over-reach themselves gesturally with the other hand.

If you’d like to see what all this resulted in, the concert will take place at the West London Synagogue on November 17th - do go along if you are in the area!

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