Conducting Gesture: The Choir as Co-Author

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gesture_voice.JPGThe title of this post is a parody of the title of a paper by Jürgen Streeck about how people use gestures in conversation. The substance of his study was to show that gestures are not merely part of the way we broadcast our ideas as we express them to others, but are influenced by the way our interlocutors are responding. If you only look at the person talking, he suggests, you won’t fully understand why they use the gestures they do. The gestures are the result of the listener’s need to comprehend as much as the speaker’s need to communicate.

This thesis has significant implications for conducting pedagogy.

Much of the conducting literature – both instruction manuals and empirical studies – works on a ‘signalling’ model. This casts the conductor as the sole generator of the gesture, with the task of displaying musical ideas in visible forms that are then decoded and acted upon by the ensemble. You can see this model in action both in the form experimental studies (measuring the effect on performance by changing the visual conducting stimulus) and in the focus of pedagogical texts structured around the physical acts of beating time.

Now, clearly this model does have some descriptive relevance to what’s going on when a conductor directs an ensemble. It wouldn’t be so pervasive in the literature if it didn’t capture some basic truth about the process. But I can’t help wondering if teaching people to conduct by focusing on what their own limbs are doing is necessarily the most helpful way of going about things.

The reason is this: when you’re actually out there in front of a bunch of musicians, there’s far too much to do to spare attention to the conscious control of your own body. If you’re thinking about where your ictus is landing, you’re not focusing on the sound of the ensemble; conversely, if you’re paying proper attention to the music as it emerges, you have no space to think about your own arms.

This isn’t something we can overcome by working harder, or trying to concentrate more, either. There are simply limits on how much information the human brain can process at once (as Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi points out about 8 ½ minutes into this video.)

And my observation is that you can tell really quite clearly whether a director is focusing primarily on their own technique or on their ensemble. Much in the same way, indeed, that you can tell if the person talking to you is thinking about you or about themselves. (Definition of a conversational bore: someone who says what they were going to say anyway, whatever you response you make.) Guess which ones musicians respond to most readily and most effectively?

Now I’m not knocking technique per se. Beat patterns are useful things to acquire, and distracting mannerisms are good things to eradicate. But the point of technique is to facilitate the music. So, approaches to teaching technique that divert attention onto technique at the expense of musical attention are actively counter-productive.

Thinking about the needs of the ensemble, on the other hand, aligns our musical intentions with the sounds emerging in real time. Attention to the here and now sets up a feedback loop between sound and body that allows a much more complex, nuanced and responsive control of posture and gesture than we could possible achieve if we were trying to operate our muscles consciously and directly.

Conducting is dancing.

There is no conductor, no choir, but a third entity: the music which is created by a synthesis of the two. If you get immersed in that, then it works.

If the singer or conductor tries to reflect on their technique, then they can't be in the music. If the conductor focuses on the singers or the singers on the conductor, then there is no room for the music.

Conducting is like when you're dancing and you have to explain to someone what you're doing with your feet. As soon as you think about it, you're not doing it!

The music is guiding your movements whilst your movements are creating the music.

Hope that makes sense!

From the Front of the Choir

That's a great way of putting it, Chris!

I may find it necessary to quote you on this in due course, if that's okay...


Be my guest. Glad it made sense!


Very well put, both Liz and Chris.


Thanks for dropping by, Tony, and for letting us know you did!

I agree up to a point...but just to be clear, the dancer AND the conductor need to spend a heck of a lot of hours and energy and time working and reflecting on and strengthening their technique before it can become really embedded and encoded into the muscle memory and general being of the performer, and from there really be able to "create the music" as Chris says.

I think the stumbling block a lot of us run into as students (of conducting or voice or pretty much anything) is that we work so hard on technique that the technique risks BECOMING the reason we are there, rather than a set of tools in our toolbox that help us do our REAL work.

My opinion, anyway.

Well, yes, I'm not saying don't practise (ahem!). I think your point about reflecting on technique is the key. I'm a little leery of the term 'muscle memory', as that can be understood either in terms of unconscious competence (= fully-integrated practice = good), or in terms of habitual responses ( = non-reflective autopilot = not so useful).

I think there is a parallel to be drawn here with Davison's idea of objective/subjective tone, which I hadn't thought of until you came along. I'll need to mull on that a little more - thanks for the spark!


(to be clear here--I'm not arguing, just pushing the question for more clarity, because this concept is making my brain dance)...

But where really is the line between "unconscious competence" and "habitual response"--IS there a distinction other than that one was obtained intentionally and the other non-intentionally? And isn't it just as possible that one could intentionally "fully integrate" unhealthy practices (I'm thinking of a lot of young singers I've heard), or instinctively habituate ourselves to something really good and healthy and natural and yet completely unexamined?

Obviously part of learning one's art is going to be about examining what's already there and reflecting on/consciously re-integrating the good, discarding/unlearning the not-so-good, and acquiring new good stuff to enrich it all, but I feel as though we (as in The Collective We Musician Types) have a tendency to reserve the label of "habit" for the unhelpful processes, where I have to wonder if there might be a lot of "autopilot" good stuff going on in the unexamined spaces-between, that may serve just fine during the possibly many years it takes to actually get there and examine it. Even scarier, sometimes just examining something that's happening successfully is enough to disrupt it and make it immediately unsuccessful (like, to oversimplify, when someone in a choir asks how you'd like them to pronounce the unstressed final vowel in a German word. The second they start to think about it, it distorts).

None of which has anything really to do with the whole premise of this post, which I totally agree with--it IS a dance, and as you pointed out the metaphor with which you closed the objective/subjective post you link to above, if we don't share weight between both legs, we won't get very far.

(And thank you for the Csikszentmihalyi link!)

Making your brain dance - that's *exactly* the object of the exercise :-)

And you're making me think here too. When I use the word 'habit', there's usually the Alexander Technique set of associations lurking in the background - the idea that what we always do feels right because it's what we always do. Whereas the state of unconscious competence is attained by assimilating consciously competent tasks - we go through a phase of only being able to do them by focusing on them alone before we become fluent.

I think the key thing I wanted to home in on in the original post, though, was our self-monitoring mechanisms. The point of better control of conducting gesture is to optimise the choir's performance. So it makes more sense to monitor the effectiveness of those gestures by attending to the sound coming from the singers rather than to the execution of the gestures.

I'm also interested in your unexamined spaces between the good things, but the thoughts emerging this afternoon aren't sufficiently formed to articulate as yet. So I'll stop for now. Thanks for the dialogue!

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