On Expressive Gesture: Introduction

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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

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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.

Music History, and the Status of Knowledge

Were the cello suites written by Anna Magdalena? Nope.Were the cello suites written by Anna Magdalena? Nope.There have been two incidents recently where the mass media portrayal of classical music has had scholars in those specific fields in a state that oscillates between outrage and despair. The first was the showing on BBC4 of Martin Jarvis’s film purporting that some of JS Bach’s works may have been written by his second wife, Anna Magdelena. The second was BBC2’s programme about the Monteverdi Vespers broadcast on Easter Saturday.

On Matching Pitch

Okay, so this is a huge topic, but I am going to see if I can keep focused on the specific thoughts that prompted me to write on the subject. These ideas arise from a combination of having read some of the scholarly literature, plus the practical experience of working with real people. So, I’d say they’re quite well-informed and well-grounded, but not comprehensive. I reserve the right, as ever, to revise them as I continue to learn.

It is a reasonably common question that choral directors come up with to ask how to help a member of their group who can’t match pitch. They will typically have worked with them at an individual level at some length, and continued difficulties lead them to seek advice from their peers.

Now, it strikes me that ‘matching pitch’ in the sense of being able to sing back a note heard from the piano is quite an abstract skill. And that whilst it may look to be the simple building block upon which successful participation in a choir is to be built, I suspect it is actually a more sophisticated level of activity that relies experience gained in more ‘real-life’ and less ‘laboratory’ musical situations.

Musings On Key Lifts

The metaphor that won't go away: they lift, but does that help?The metaphor that won't go away: they lift, but does that help?If my mother were writing this post, it would be tagged under my Soapbox category, and it would be a vehement denouncement of the use of the semitone key lift as a device for adding interest to repeated material. There would be particular attention to the work of John Rutter, in which she contends that it is a formulaic trick, so over-used that instead of perking up her attention it makes her heart sink with a feeling of ‘Oh no, not again’.

However, I have not yet entirely turned into my mother, so I am not going to be quite so doctrinaire. But neither am I resisting the inevitable process of family resemblance, so I’ll say she does have something of a point.

I spend rather more of my time in a cappella, as opposed to accompanied, choral worlds than she does, and so my reservations about semitone key lifts are more based around how badly they are often sung. The standard quip is that their main function is to allow a flatting ensemble to end in the same key that they started in.

The Benefits of Being ‘Young and Talented’

Having picked over some of the hurdles that face the sprightly new director when they take up their first post with an older choir in my last post, it occurred to me that there are also some advantages to this situation that it is worth pointing out. It may seem redundant to tell someone why they are fortunate to be both youthful and skilled, but when you are struggling against the twin obstacles of inexperience and condescension, it doesn’t necessarily feel as enviable as outsiders assume.

But there is a specific advantage that any new director has, and which is amplified significantly by both the qualities of relative youth and high skill. Your very existence bounces people out of their comfort zones.

The Challenges of Being ‘Young and Talented’

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There’s a scenario that happens frequently enough that it is possible to generalise about: a well-established choir acquiring a ‘young and talented’, but relatively inexperienced director. I put the ‘young and talented’ in scare quotes, as that’s how the director is usually described by the choir, but may not be how I would put it.

The dimension of youth is generally quite clear (though possibly not quite as purely objective as you might think - the perception of juniority can be magnified or diminished by other factors such as gender and class). But the concept of ‘talent’, as regular readers will know, is open to critique - it is a concept that mythologises the products of dedication as innate rather than hard-won.

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