László Norbert Nemes on Conducting

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One of the delightful by-products of being a tutor on courses such as the British Kodály Academy’s is that when you’re not delivering sessions, you get to sit in on other people’s. Indeed, I had the honour of teaching László Nemes the term ‘gatecrash’ to describe my attendance at his conducting class one afternoon. (His English is excellent, so one can only assume he is too polite to have needed this word before.)

There were three specific details in the work he did with the course participants that caught my attention.

Use of the Left/Non-dominant Hand

As I remark in my choral conducting book, whilst all writers on conducting agree on the redundancy of mirrored gestures, there are two different approaches to teaching conducting that result.

(I also note that, notwithstanding this universal disapproval, pretty much all conductors do, in fact, use mirrored gestures. Though it has to be said, the better ones use them much more sparingly.)

The majority approach is to start with the beat patterns in the right hand, and then add the left hand as and when more information (cueing, shaping) is required. The minority approach (represented only by Willian Ehmann and James Jordan in the selection of literature I drew upon) recommends starting off with mirrored gestures, and develop into greater independence from there. The argument for this point of view is that to inhibit all gesture on the non-dominant side expressively damps down half of the body, and that a balanced bodily engagement is more supportive for singers.

In László’s class, we had two interestingly contrasted case-studies on this issue. The first was a conductor who had clearly been guided in the majority view as he was directing entirely with his right hand. László asked him to engage the left hand, ‘even if you can’t do much with it,’ as it improved the connection with the choir. He demonstrated with an open gesture the idea that with two arms you can hold, or embrace the ensemble.

Suggestions as to what the left hand could usefully do included giving cues, holding one part on a sustained note while others moved, and participating in the starts and ends of phrases. For myself, whilst I agree that the two-handed release of sound worked effectively, I’d be a bit cautious about a double-handed onset of sound, as I could see it introducing synchronisation risks. Your mileage may vary.

The second case study was a left-handed director, whom László asked to reduced her non-dominant hand involvement. This was, interestingly, so as to make it clearer which hand ‘owned’ the beat. (At this point I went back to try and link to where I have written about the left-handed conductor debate, and discover that I have never actually done so. Must do that some time as it’s a question that comes up all the time when I’m working with conductors!) It was a very effective piece of advice, and it was the first time I’d seen the debates about the roles and activity of the hands interact with the debates about which had to use as dominant.

The Stop-beat

László worked with several of the participants on the ‘stop-beat’ - one of those details of technique that gets mentioned in manuals, but not discussed as fully or from so many different dimensions as you do when helping people discover how it works and for what purpose. In the context of the class, it was a couple of cadence-points in particular where it was recommended. By holding the hand still through the held note at the end of a phrase rather than beating through it, there was a much clearer sense of the music coming to rest.

What happened next was that some of the participants then ran into difficulty continuing into the next phrase in tempo. And we saw a classic example of that kind of teaching interaction whereby the student’s trouble following an instruction forces the teacher to think in greater detail and refine it, making his own implicit knowledge explicit. These moments always feel special as both teacher and learner feel they are growing, and feel good about each other’s growth, as it is entirely a result of their interaction.

The two refinements that László added here were, first, to point out that the pulse needs to continue in your head even if you’re not showing it in your hand. Which sounds obvious at first, but is quite interesting when you think about the relationship between musical structure and surface; in Schelling’s terms, between the ideal and the real. The second, which emerged from this, was the analysis of what you physically do to create a stop-beat: ‘The beat doesn’t really stop, you just omit the rebound after the ictus.’

The last point he made about it was back to the musical content. He had introduced the idea to facilitate a sense of ending. But this then opened up the possibility of a new beginning: ‘If you stop, you have the possibility of something new.’ This in turn gives useful hints as to when the technique will be particularly useful: the phrases that end sections preceding significant contrasts are the ones when a sense of closure is most important.

The Conducting Voice

The session ended by looking at a piece to be prepared overnight and conducted the next day. One part of the discussion was tracing the ‘conducting voice’ through it. This is a continuous musical thread that weaves from part to part through piece, defining where the conductor’s attention should be at any one point. It focuses on where the action lies in the texture: melodic interest, suspensions, cues, any particularly ‘sensitive’ notes (e.g. tricky to pitch and/or harmonically/expressively surprising), significant vocal leaps. Basically, whoever has the main challenge in the music at any one time should be the centre of the conductor’s attention.

László called this the ‘conducting voice’, and indeed he sang the line to demonstrate and summarise the analysis. I found this interesting as it is something I have observed, both in my own relationship with musical content and once, revealingly, if somewhat embarrassingly, when I saw a director lead a massed sing standing in front of a live microphone. I don’t think hearing her sing what I thought of then as a ‘director’s line’ over the top of the assembled voices really added to the musical effectiveness of the event (!!), but it was very interesting to hear that she was thinking in those terms.

So, the BKA event was the first time I’d ever heard anyone else refer to this in so many words, let alone use it as an explicit tool in score preparation. Of course, all the things it encompassed are the things traditional score prep would have you identify, but traditional score prep is all too apt to leave you with a forest of markings and little attention to spare for how the singers are actually getting on.

So this notion of the conducting voice is a very useful tool to integrate all the detail into a continuous, real-time experience of the piece such that the conductor’s attention will always be with those singers who need them the most. You were probably doing this already to a greater or lesser extent, but now you have a name for it, you can do it on purpose.

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