On Surface Over-Compensating

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When I was observing a lot of conductors as the heart of the research for my choral conducting book, I noticed how certain hand positions appear to correlate with certain types of relationship with the activity. In particular, I noted a kind of angular hand shape: wrists cocked back, fingers straight and folded forward at a right angle from the main knuckle, thumbs sticking up, and the ictus formed by a kind of scooping motion with the heel of the hand.

The choral sounds that this hand shape typically elicited were quite bright in tone, and reasonably well controlled, but often containing audible vocal tension and lacking bloom on the sound. The overall sound was often rather more contained and muted than you might have expected from the number of singers involved.

My notes from these observations comment that, as the cocked-back wrist is used more generally for perkier music (you see it as a temporary expressive effect in otherwise more open-wristed conductors), there appear to be two things going on in the angled hand. First, the wrist angle elicits brightness, and then the top of the hand fold forwards in an attempt to control the resultant jangle, effectively putting a lid on the sound.

These inferences were made in the overall context of the rehearsals. This particular gesture only appeared in less accomplished groups, where the choral craft was relatively under-developed, and the conductor lived with an underlying anxiety born of the awareness that the group was collectively not achieving all that it might, but without the wherewithal to lift them beyond their current level.

I have been thinking about these observations again recently in the wider context of the relationship between the physical use of the self and one’s relationship (both emotional and conceptual) with one’s craft, and in the specific context of some observations about the use of the voice.

My thinking book from last year contains observations about two types of vocal sound I’d been hearing, and speculations as to whether they were related. The first my notes characterise as ‘disconnected’: slightly airy, top-heavy timbre lacking width, in need of more resonance. The second was a kind of pressed or pushed tone, forcing air through a thick contact between the vocal folds, adding twang without adding space. The groups using this second manner of vocal production were in general more accomplished than those using the former, and I wondered whether they had developed that tone in part as a way to transcend the issues of disconnection in the first type of sound.

These two sets of examples may seem quite separate from each other at first sight – I’m writing this post to try and work out why I felt a connection between them. I think the common ground is in the dynamic of people with some skill, but as yet not as much as they aspire to, finding ways to bootstrap themselves up a level that deal with a surface issue, but tending to over-compensate because they leave more fundamental issues untouched.

And what’s fascinating of course is that much of this would probably be done intuitively, and that enough people are dealing with analogous issues in the same kinds of ways that one can see patterns emerging between groups who aren’t necessarily aware of each other. (Some of the examples I’m thinking of definitely would be, others, as far as I know, wouldn’t.)

At a technical level, it is relatively easy to see how you’d help these musicians on their journeys. With the conductors you’d address their overall stance, and help them connect their gestures to their breath, which would add both ring and clarity to the sound, obviating the need either to cock the wrist or fold the fingers. With the singers likewise you’d be looking at posture and breath so as to allow the larynx to work more efficiently without forcing the tone. (And having written that paragraph, I am less surprised by why these two situations reminded me of each other.)

But I have a hunch that the technical level, while essential, wouldn’t by itself sort things. Or, possibly, that the technical solutions won’t take hold unless we could also adjust the way the conductors and singers were relating to themselves as musicians in their respective social contexts. There’s a lot of Inner Game stuff going on here. People who care deeply about what they do but live with a lurking fear they’re not doing it well enough put themselves under a lot of subliminal pressure, which becomes habitual and ingrained into how they experience themselves and their praxis, probably below their conversant awareness.

Teaching technique thus becomes a task not only of control over motor actions, but developing the meaning of those actions in ways that reframe their belief systems and personal narratives in ways that allow them to move beyond the fear.

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