Expressive Gesture, Part 3: Embodying the Music

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Third in a series that starts here

The fluid interplay between Simon Halsey's speech-accompanying and conducting gestures was a fascinating case study in the research that feeds this postThe fluid interplay between Simon Halsey's speech-accompanying and conducting gestures was a fascinating case study in the research that feeds this post

The very term ‘expressive gesture’ encapsulates the idea of musical thought made physical. And it is an interesting question as to how this happens. Often in conducting manuals, you get lots of useful detail on technique such as the conventions for indicating musical structures such as metre, but notions of creating musical beauty are sealed off in a box marked ‘Magic: do not open’.

To an extent, this is not as much of a cop-out as it may seem. Spontaneous, speech-accompanying gesture is something we all do intuitively as part of the act of thinking and communicating, without needing to be taught how to do it. And musicotopographic gestures (i.e. those than emerge as part of the act of thinking in music) are equally spontaneous and intuitive. This is why I argued that the most important first step in developing expressive gesture was to develop the musical imagination.

But it doesn’t always follow that a nuanced and interesting musical thought emerges as an effective conducting gesture. And there seem to me to be two main types of difficulty that people encounter.

One is that they successfully connect their bodies with the music, but as a whole-body experience rather than one focused in the transactional segment of the body traditionally used for conducting. This is one of the roots of over-conducting, a condition that has the advantage of complete and committed musical engagement, but at the cost of precision and control. The conductor presents too much of a moving target for the ensemble to follow unanimously, while their excessive focus on their inner musical life prevents them from hearing the ensemble clearly.

The other difficulty is that the conductor learns the conventional conducting patterns but then finds themselves boxed into technical rather than expressive modes of thinking. This conductor will have advantages of clarity and efficiency over the flailingly hyper-expressive, but may find the performances they elicit overly mechanical or pedestrian.

It is tempting to think of these two types of problems of belonging to people of contrasting personalities, but it is perfectly possible to go through both at different phases of one’s development as a director. You start off deeply musical but out of control, take some lessons in an attempt to get a grip, and find you’ve lost touch with the part of yourself that feels phrasing and shaping.

The task of embodiment is thus, from both starting points, to find ways to map your internal musical world onto those parts of your body that will be most helpful to your ensemble, and only those parts. Here are some practical exercises to help.

For the over-conductor

  • Conduct standing on one leg. This will stop you dancing about, will lessen your bobbing up and down, and will force you to keep all your arm movements within a reasonable space around you, since over-reaching will make you over-balance. You can get your singers to stand on one leg too as it’s good for their physical engagement with their voices. All of you can change leg as and when you feel the need, but you shouldn’t have more than one foot touching the ground for more than a second or two at a time (steadying yourself with a toe is not standing on one leg, it’s standing with a wonky posture).
  • Conduct with nothing but eye contact. Telepathically project the music to the singers, without using your hands at all. If you find yourself trying to beat with your head and do cut-offs with your eyebrows, this is a sign that you’ll also benefit from adjusting the equilibrium between ‘broadcasting’ to the ensemble and listening to them that I’ll look at next in this series

For the conductor trapped by correctness

  • Take the ‘stand up and dance’ listening activity from my previous post and use the same kind of playful physicality as you sing through each part while you prepare the music. If you were previously an over-conductor, you may not need this stage, but it is a good way to open up the connection between your imaginative musical world and your body, and release you from the careful obligation to cue every entry and technical detail
  • Play with changing the rhythmic character of the music, both in your preparation at home, and in rehearsal with the ensemble. Turn a jig into a funeral march, or a ballad into a Viennese waltz. Evoking an exaggeratedly characterised rhythmic profile, and one which confounds the expectations of the performers you’re working with, can infuse your beat with extra-musical associations in ways that taking a more obedient or respectful approach to the music doesn’t always achieve.

For both

  • Spend time singing softly to yourself, feeling the music down your into your hand and along your fingers. The vibrations in your body from the sound can be experienced in the flesh of your gestures, bringing your hands alive into the music. This sounds fanciful, but once you’ve done it, try taking your hands deliberately out of the sound, and you’ll feel the difference. You don’t need to *do* anything in particular with your hands for this exercise, just enjoy feeling music in them as you live with it.
  • As you prepare the music, conduct to/for yourself. Bring the gesture close in to your body, and keep it as small as you possibly can. Concentrate the musical flow into a single finger tip. This is how people gesture when they’re thinking. The idea, at this point, is not to practise gestures that you will display to the performers, but to think deeply into the music and bring your hand(s) into that process of thought.

    For the over-conductor, the value of this exercise is to get your hand so fully-invested in the music that you don’t need large motor movements in the rest of the body. For the boxed-in conductor, the value is to connect the hand that beats with the heart that feels so that your learned patterns can participate fully in the musical meaning.

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