On Musical and Didactic Gestures

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This is one of those posts that I was going to send someone a link to in order to explain an idea, then discovered I’d not written yet. It’s a concept I’ve referred to in passing over the years, but I guess the reason I’ve not blogged about it is because I developed the idea in some detail in my choral conducting book, which I finished writing a few months before starting this blog.

So, you could always buy my book and turn to page 130. I’ve just re-read that bit and it’s quite good, and includes some references to specific examples in the video footage that accompanies the book. But for those who need to know right now and can’t wait for the book to arrive…

The distinction between musical and didactic gestures derives from observations of conductors in action; it is one that appears in the gestural language across choral genres. The musical gesture is the expressive holistic embodiment of musical flow, the mode where the conductor ‘looks like the music itself’. Musical gestures are the source of nuance and characterisation in the choral performance.

The didactic gesture is used when the director needs to convey a specific instruction: breathe here! stay on the same note until the downbeat! don’t speed up! It is often a reminder of a verbal instruction, cueing the singers to correct something they have hitherto got wrong, and is commensurately clear and focused, singling out the single point they need to make rather than embodying the entire musical texture. These gestures are usually placed somewhat outside the ongoing gesture stream so they are spatially distinct as well as contrasting in character. Didactic gestures are there to aid accuracy.

Conductors shift between the two intuitively in the ebb and flow of rehearsal and performance, but it’s useful to bring this intuitive process into conscious awareness for the purpose of refining one’s technique. Sometimes, for instance, we catch ourselves continuing to give a reminder long after we’d have hoped our singers had grasped the point it was making. If we don’t stop making the didactic gesture, we’ll never discover if in fact that moment is secure; it also gives the message to our singers that we don’t trust them to get it right (so maybe they won’t…).

This distinction is the conducting gestural version of the Communicator versus the Manager: one mode focused on musical meaning, the other on technical execution. And, like that more general distinction, we are likely to need a more didactic approach early in the rehearsal process for a piece, handing over to musical gestures as we near performance. But we need to connect with the musical right from the start, so that people learn the music with an understanding of its expressive purpose; conversely, we need to be alert to the possibility of needing our didactic gestures even in performance, if we encounter a wobble that needs trouble-shooting.

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