Clarity of Intention, Clarity of Sound

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In my recent post about the nature of conductor-choir attention, I was focusing primarily on the flow of information between director and singers. How if the conductor is thinking about ‘depicting’ the music to the choir more than they are noticing how the choir is (how they sound, how they look), then that limits their opportunity to adapt in real time to the needs of the emerging music.

It occurred to me as I was finishing that post that there’s also a technical factor at play here. I noted that you can tell when a director is really listening hard, from their body language - the whole posture and gesture space becomes more integrated, more connected, visually ‘quieter’. A director looks at their best, that is, when they are not thinking about how they look, but instead about how their choir sounds.

A wonderful piece of research I cite in my choral conducting book is a paper by Geoff Luck in which he was testing to see what shape of conducting pattern elicited the most accurate performance. The experiment pared down the whole scenario to a point of light representing the tip of the baton, and taps on a computer keyboard space bar representing the musical performance that was ‘following’ the beat.

The experiment produced a collection of interesting observations about the amount of ‘curliness’ in a pattern and he extent to which this allowed observers to anticipate the arrival of the next beat correctly. But it also produced a very interesting tangential point: that there was no difference in how accurate the ‘performances’ were when following expert versus novice conductors.

Now, in real life, there quite often is a difference. It is usually the novice conductor who has a harder job getting an ensemble to perform together than the expert. I don’t think this is a controversial observation - there may be exceptions, but it’s a pretty robust generalisation.

So, if novices have no disadvantage when reduced to the tip of the baton, this would suggest that the problem actually lies in everything else they are doing. Which again, we recognise from real life - it is the extraneous motions that distract, that muddy the waters, and one of the things that marks expertise in conducting is shedding unnecessary movements.

It occurs to me, therefore, that one of the things that is producing such cleaner performances when directors really listen is that they are thereby shedding the twitches and excessive movements that would otherwise get in the way. When a director is thinking about projecting the music visually, they may be thinking quite specifically about their hands, their faces, but they may not be thinking about their head-neck angle, the jiggling of the their knees, and their swaying from side to side, all of which are probably having a more or less deleterious effect on the sound.

When a director is listening intently, they lose these extraneous motions. Not by consciously calming them of course - they have no more attention to spare for random body parts than the director in ‘broadcasting’ mode. But there is a clarity of intention visible there. There is a sense that the music fills their consciousness, and therefore also fills their physical being. There aren’t extraneous motions, because there aren’t extraneous thoughts.

The conductor more completely becomes the music, that is, when they stop thinking about what they’re doing themselves.

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