Expressive Gesture, Part 4: Directing with Your Ears

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How to hear your choir more perceptively is a theme I have explored before, both in its own right and in relation to elements of conducting technique such as stillness and mouthing the words. And my recent visit to the White Rosettes, with its opportunity to observe how a director can listen the music into tune, came at just the right moment for me to try and frame how these thoughts fit together as part of a practical guide to expressive gesture.

The issue is one of attention. If you’re entirely focused on your projection of the musical soundtrack inside your head, that will be too loud for you to really hear or respond to much of what is coming back to you from the choir. (You get the same issue with instrumentalists of course - often the issue going on behind a spirited but technially splashy and/or sketchy performance.)

Your body language will likely be too ‘loud’ too - so not only will you be denying your singers the chance to become co-authors of your gestures, you may find they actually retreat vocally as your over-conducting invades their musical space. If their reticence in turn prompts you to invest even more musical energy into your physical being, this is how directors and choirs end up in strangely co-dependent dysfunctional relationships.

(One should add: I have described this as a dynamic between an overbearing conductor and timid choir. The choir is not always unhappy in this role, though - they quite often enjoy the vicarious experience of seeing their director throw themselves into the music while they sing along gently. But it doesn’t conduce to the best performances.)

The conductor’s task is thus to find that sweet spot that balances their imagined musical shape in their consciousness with the actual musical sound that comes from the singers. Their gestures become part of the thought process that brings these into line with each other, refining the physical sound, while simultaneously updating the internal musical image with real-life detail.

The next sentence is the reason I have been procrastinating writing about this:

So, how do you do this?

Here are some practical suggestions for exercises to help:

  • Use the warm-up to work on your ear-gesture connection. Simple, repetitive exercises that focus on quality of tone not only build a choir’s sound from a vocal perspective, but give the director chance to listen in depth without being distracted by having to manage lots of detail. If the director is listening intently, interestingly, the choir’s attention remains engaged far longer than you might imagine with the traditional notion of ‘drill’.
  • Conduct with your eyes closed Closing off the visual channel encourages you to open your ears. And it also seems to relieve you of that responsibility to do things for the singers. It’s as if once you stop seeing, you also stop being so conscientiously visible and can start to shape what you hear rather than broadcast what you’re thinking
  • Alternate audiating with singing This is a great, if mentally challenging, exercise for director and singers alike. Take a short passage (maybe a phrase or two), and first everyone runs through in their own heads. Then you direct them in singing it out loud, and then everyone immediately re-runs their immediate aural memory of what they have just heard. It is astonishing how much detail the short-term memory can deliver to you like this. And, whilst I have described this as ‘alternating’, it’s actually a three-way cycle between imagination, sound and memory.
  • Slow things down Everyone learns different things when you sing music slowly. Singers have more time to think about details of notes and word sounds, while finding their breath control challenged; directors get more time to hear the details of vowel, tuning, balance, synchronisation.

When you find your way to this place where you are hearing productively, you find the following things happen:

  • You can do a lot of the nitty-gritty work (both technical and artistic) with your hands within the flow of the music and so have to spend a lot less time talking
  • The real-time feedback between you and the singers encourages all of you into a flow state
  • You end the rehearsal feeling much less physically tired than usual as you have relinquished a lot of the extraneous muscular effort that was making things hard work

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