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:

Those conductors who have more nuanced and varied gestural vocabularies also have more interesting, vivid and metaphorical ways of talking about music. Those conductors who stick to concrete operations (“sing loud here”) or simplistic modes of expression (“is this happy music or sad music?”) tend to display blockier and less varied gestures.

What is in our minds, that is, shows in our hands. So the fundamental prerequisite to develop expressive gesture is to develop the musical imagination. This insight is what underlies the not entirely helpful but also not entirely misguided British tradition of regarding musicianship as the primary focus of the conductor, to which actual stick technique is a minor adjunct.

Anyone who has seen (or indeed been) a good musician with no background in conducting technique as they learn their craft on the job, though, will recognise that how we embody that imagination also makes a difference. We need to connect up our feeling for musical shape with our physical being in ways that are coherent with the norms of the musical tradition we are working in if our internal soundscape is to be accessible to the ensembles we work with.

Whilst I would argue that the imagination is the place to start, in both a logical and chronological sense, it is not all a one-way process; as thought generates gesture, gesture can facilitate thought. Part of learning how to feel in the inner shape of music is learning how to inhabit it, and learning how to feel the music more deeply and richly is a physical as well as cognitive process.

The third corner of this golden triangle is hearing. You can connect your imagination to your gestures, but if these are not also connected to the real-time sounds coming from your ensemble, you are not communicating with them, you are merely having a musical experience in front of them, It is your trip; they are not involved. They may quite happily sing along with that experience, but unless the conductor makes room for them in their consciousness as active participants in the musical flow, the coordination will be at best generalised and approximate.

So that is our triumvirate of expressive gesture: imagination, embodiment and hearing. We will look at them in that order as that is the sequence you work on them when preparing music to rehearse. Inner hearing shapes gesture as you study the music at home, gesture then shapes the sound you hear in rehearsal. But they are also simultaneous. As you conduct, you gestures are suspended between - shaped by and shaping - the imagined world of your prepared interpretation and the experienced world of how the music emerges from real people in real time.

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