Eye Contact, Ear Contact, Mind Contact

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InhabitanceOne of the truisms in choral conducting is the importance of eye contact. When being coached myself, I have been given exercises such making sure I look round at every individual, with the chorus instruction to raise their hands if they feel lacking in director attention. And as a coach, I have spent time with other directors intervening in habits such as dropping the gaze just before bringing the singers in.

At the same time, though, I have to note that some of the best sounds I have heard directors elicit from their singers - the most unified, in tune, resonant - have come when the director was not making eye contact, but was instead listening intently.

You can tell the body language of a director whose ears are fully engaged. The gaze is often lowered slightly and/or turned to the side; the ear may be more directed towards the singers than the face. The gestures are also more contained, closer to the body than when a director is explicitly 'broadcasting' or 'emoting' to the choir. They look more like the gestures you would use when thinking through the music than you would when showing your ideas to someone else; ‘musicotopgraphic’ rather than depictive gestures if you wish to be technical about it.

I think the key thing is not perhaps the organ with which a director attends to the choir, but the fact that they are attending closely. The point about eye contact is not to touch every singer with a virtual beam that shines out of your eyes, but to collect the photons that bounce off every singer so that you know how they are.

I spent a whole chapter in my choral conducting book critiquing the epistemological models of research into conducting that saw it as basically a system of signalling, and the way the resultant experimental structures are so often doomed to miss what's going on when choral conducting works at its best.

And I tend to think the advice about eye contact, as it is often framed, runs into similar difficulties. Yes, there is an extent to which the process of choral conducting involves showing what you mean for the singers to see, and them acting on it. But that only really initiates the process. Once the music is up and going, you are all making the music together.

The singers know what's going to happen next, because they have access to the same script the conductor has. They don't therefore need to be 'shown' how the music goes, they need to be coordinated so that they all make it as a coherent ensemble.

The singers need to watch the conductor for this to work, for sure. But the conductor also needs to pay attention to the singers. They are - to use the wonderful term from Merleau-Ponty that David McNeill uses to describe the cooperative endeavour of conversation - inhabiting the same house of being.

When both parties are closely involved with each other, deeply attentive, you get a magically intimate result, with all the subtleties of tuning, synchronisation, blend, nuance and expression that are too fine to control at a conscious, technical level working beautifully. When the director is in broadcast mode, too focused on displaying their intentions to attend to the results in real time, you get the sense of a lot of people performing simultaneously rather than a real sense of ensemble.

So I'm not saying the truism is wrong. But I am saying that it is the contact, rather than the eye, per se, that is important. If the director's gaze is elsewhere, but their ears, heart and attention are absolutely with the choir, the singers know, and they will trust the magic to happen.

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