Gesture and Words, Part and Whole

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This post started out as a paragraph in my account of the Zemel workshop on singing and movement, but grew into a post in its own right. It concerns an insight I had during the workshop that - as these things so often do - feels a bit obvious now I write it down, but felt like quite a penny-drop moment at the time.

It concerns the cognitive challenge of fitting gestures to lyrics when your part of a choral texture is singing something other than those lyrics. Lyric-based gestures, when designed to fit naturalistically to the concepts in the narrative (i.e. paced like natural speech in their frequency and not unduly pantomimic or literal in form) actually help you remember the words, once you have got over the shock to the system of operating hands and voice at the same time.

But choral arrangements don’t always give everybody all the words. Sometimes you have oohs or ahs or individual words picked out of the longer narrative. Singing these while doing gestures designed to go with the lyrics is a rather more demanding task.

First we had to deal with why you need to do the gestures even when your part doesn’t have the words. This is because, from the audience’s perspective, they are not following the story through your part, but listening to the composite of all the parts together making a whole narrative. They don’t really need to know or care who sings which bits, they hear the overall result as a unit. The audience listens to one choir, not lots of singers.

And this in turn is a theme that has run through my coaching for some years - how as an ensemble develops in skills, the individuals need to move beyond performing their own part to feeling as if they are singing all the music. They need to be aware of their partners in this dance of ensemble musicianship, and know who they are interacting with at any one point, when they need to lead, when to support, how their note fits into and makes the chord.

The big penny-drop moment at Zemel’s Celebrate With Song session was how something like choreographed gestures, which could appear simply to be a matter of visual performance, makes precisely this demand on singers. The reason it is harder to do the gestures while singing something that’s not the primary lyric is because the sudden demand to perform as if you were singing the whole song bumps you up several levels of performative engagement and authority. You stop just being a cog in a choral machine, but share in the responsibility for delivering the overall message of the song as well as continuing your previous role as supplier of an alternation of narrative and accompanying moments.

Adding choreography, that is, is not just about learning how to operate one’s limbs while singing, but learning how to do this and become a more sophisticated musician.

The secondary penny-drop moment that came after this was that in the barbershop world of showmanship, it just happens that the material that is most likely to receive the most extravagant choreographic treatment is also the repertoire that requires all singers to be singing the same words at the same time most of the time. Homophony is central to the style as defined for contest purposes for reasons primarily to do with harmony and resonance (continuity of consonance/expanded sound), but it turns out this requirement has made the ambitious visual plans some choruses present more cognitively accessible to the singers.

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