Expressive Gesture, Part 2: Developing the Imagination

Second in a series that starts here

conductor imagination cartoon

Our conducting gestures are only ever as expressive as the musical thoughts that generate them. So the place to start in refining and developing our gestures is to work on what is inside our heads. Which sounds a rather abstract thing to do, so here are some specific activities that will service that aim.

On Expressive Gesture: Introduction


How can a conductor learn to communicate more expressively with their gestures? The temptation when we first ask this question is to focus on what we’re doing with our hands, but I’m increasingly of the mind that these are a relatively small part of the process. Moreover, while we will certainly need to give attention to this part of it, if we start here, we won’t get any further.

This is the first of a series of posts looking in some detail at ways to increase the expressiveness of our conducting gestures. As the introduction, it will give an overview of the key elements, with subsequent articles exploring practical approaches we can take to develop each element.

I will try to avoid digging too far into the theoretical background that underlies the practical suggestions. Much as I enjoy a good bit of theorising - not least because my idea of a good theory is one which helps you operate better in the real world - that’s not my primary purpose here. But if at any point in this series, you find yourself thinking, ‘But, why?’, then you may find that Part 3 of my book on choral conducting, and particularly Chapter 10, helpful.

So, an observation that serves as a useful starting-point:

The White Rosettes and the Conductor-Choir Bond


I spent Wednesday evening with my friends the White Rosettes in Leeds with the remit to feed into their developing vision of two new contest numbers. In part this was a reality-check regarding the ideas they are exploring for a delivery that in places departs significantly from the previous performance tradition of those songs. When you have been getting excited about reimagining music in new ways, it can be useful to have an outsider available to verify that you’re still going to connect with people who are used to hearing it the conventional way.

In this case, the answer was: yes, that’s a great vision, and here are a few adjustments to its execution that will help you realise it more easily.

The Dangers of Being ‘Young and Talented’

bigfishMy previous two posts on this theme considered the scenario of a young, skilled musician taking on the role of director for the first time with an established choir, and, respectively, the challenges they are likely to face, and the advantages they are likely to wield. This last post in the series looks a bit wider to the dangers the category ‘young and talented’ presents to those it is applied to in general, as well as how this plays out the specific scenario of the new director.

Talent, as I have discussed before, is a mythological category. Our culture largely regards it as an inborn, innate quality, an assumption for which the literature on expertise can find no basis. Depth of skill emerges from the quantity and quality of practise someone undertakes; capacity follows rather than precedes the activity.

But, because the mythology of talent is so ubiquitous, people still use it to describe the facts of aptitude that they observe. Henry Kingsbury describes how it thus becomes a socially-negotiated label: those with authority bestow it upon junior members of that social world, giving them permission to consider themselves as particularly and specially endowed. This label can then prove a useful motivator for continued engagement: a child who is led to believe they have a special capacity for something is arguably less likely to give it up.

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