Conducting Gesture: The Choir as Co-Author
The title of this post is a parody of the title of a paper by Jürgen Streeck about how people use gestures in conversation. The substance of his study was to show that gestures are not merely part of the way we broadcast our ideas as we express them to others, but are influenced by the way our interlocutors are responding. If you only look at the person talking, he suggests, you won’t fully understand why they use the gestures they do. The gestures are the result of the listener’s need to comprehend as much as the speaker’s need to communicate.
This thesis has significant implications for conducting pedagogy.
Much of the conducting literature – both instruction manuals and empirical studies – works on a ‘signalling’ model. This casts the conductor as the sole generator of the gesture, with the task of displaying musical ideas in visible forms that are then decoded and acted upon by the ensemble. You can see this model in action both in the form experimental studies (measuring the effect on performance by changing the visual conducting stimulus) and in the focus of pedagogical texts structured around the physical acts of beating time.
Now, clearly this model does have some descriptive relevance to what’s going on when a conductor directs an ensemble. It wouldn’t be so pervasive in the literature if it didn’t capture some basic truth about the process. But I can’t help wondering if teaching people to conduct by focusing on what their own limbs are doing is necessarily the most helpful way of going about things.
The reason is this: when you’re actually out there in front of a bunch of musicians, there’s far too much to do to spare attention to the conscious control of your own body. If you’re thinking about where your ictus is landing, you’re not focusing on the sound of the ensemble; conversely, if you’re paying proper attention to the music as it emerges, you have no space to think about your own arms.
This isn’t something we can overcome by working harder, or trying to concentrate more, either. There are simply limits on how much information the human brain can process at once (as Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi points out about 8 ½ minutes into this video.)
And my observation is that you can tell really quite clearly whether a director is focusing primarily on their own technique or on their ensemble. Much in the same way, indeed, that you can tell if the person talking to you is thinking about you or about themselves. (Definition of a conversational bore: someone who says what they were going to say anyway, whatever you response you make.) Guess which ones musicians respond to most readily and most effectively?
Now I’m not knocking technique per se. Beat patterns are useful things to acquire, and distracting mannerisms are good things to eradicate. But the point of technique is to facilitate the music. So, approaches to teaching technique that divert attention onto technique at the expense of musical attention are actively counter-productive.
Thinking about the needs of the ensemble, on the other hand, aligns our musical intentions with the sounds emerging in real time. Attention to the here and now sets up a feedback loop between sound and body that allows a much more complex, nuanced and responsive control of posture and gesture than we could possible achieve if we were trying to operate our muscles consciously and directly.