Exploring Gesture and Voice
I recently spent a morning working with the director and assistant director of a choir on a variety of elements of both vocal and conducting techniques. It was an interesting session for all kinds of reasons, not least the resonances between the work on their own voices and the work on how they will help others’ voices with their gestures.
We spent the first part of the conducting work using the principle that you can hear what kind of effect your gestures will have on a choir by listening to how they affect your own voice. Singing a simple 5-note scale to a conducted 4-pattern, for example, gives a very immediate and clear indication of where that pattern facilitates legato and where it is bumping. Down-beats in particular are a challenge to combine the clarity needed for accurate rhythm and a synchronised performance with the continuity that voices need to flow at their best.
Likewise, we demonstrated the principle propounded by William Ehmann and James Jordan that mirroring a beat pattern in both hands (which most writers forbid for its visual redundancy) facilitates vocal resonance by engaging both sides of the body in the process. (Of course, it is still visually redundant, so the aim is not to use this as a standard part of the technique - but it can be a good exercise to activate the non-dominant arm musically.)
The thing I like about this kind of work is that it keeps the attention focused on the sound while you refine the conducting gesture. It is all very well thinking about the detail of how you operate your limbs, but when you get in front of a choir, there just is not enough brain space available to think about your hands in any depth as well as cater to the needs of the singers and the needs of the music. If you have practised making small adjustments to your gestures in response to what you hear from your own voice, you have set up the feedback loop you need to adapt your gestures to the sounds you hear from the choir.
The thing I found most striking about this session, though, was how productive a learning environment it was to work with the two of them together. It needed a considerable level of trust between them, to be sure, but since they are accustomed to working together effectively, that was fine.
What this set-up gave was a learning environment that was both richer and less tiring than a one-on-one session would offer. One usually finds that after 20 minutes’ intensive work on something, a learner needs to stop for a few minutes and absorb/process what they’ve learned. In a one-on-one session, this becomes a period of summary and feedback, and possibly note-taking. In a one-on-two session, that learner gets to switch over to watching their co-learner doing similar activities, and can therefore not only reflect on their own learning, but observe how someone else effects similar kinds of changes in their technique.
And close observation of others is such an amazingly powerful facilitator of skill-acquisition. Your mirror neurons are firing like billy-o as you watch, but you have time and space to notice small differences. The nuance and grain of your perception fuels your capacity to make intuitive fine adjustments in your own technique. It’s like duetting for conductors.
And this alternation also allowed a longer session for the two together than would have worked for either alone - especially at the depth of intensity we worked at. Each got recovery time from the focus on the detail of their own technique, but they stayed inside the process throughout, so continued to build even through their ‘resting’ times.