The Conductor's Million-Dollar Question

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When you get an email with the subject line 'quick question', you sometimes know that, while the question might be quick, finding the answer is actually your whole life's work. A recent email from a conductor I've been working with contained the following question:

I was thinking about what you were saying about using too much of my body. It was something I had been aware of, and I intend to work on it. But I was trying to work out how it came about. I think it’s a question of rehearsal technique – trying to convey the ‘shape’ of the song to the chorus without having to break it down. When I start a song, how is it best to teach the overall shape? Would you do it verbally? Break it down section by section? I think I was being lazy and trying, perhaps, to achieve too much too quickly by showing them rather than explaining it very well.

Now, some directors don't have this problem. They find standing still and beating time without flapping round like a tent in a hurricane comes naturally. For many of us, however, the challenge is how to keep our physical expressiveness under control.

And the way this passage is framed really captures the dynamic of how an ensemble can inveigle their director into over-conducting during the learning phase of a song. Because they are not yet comfortable with notes and words, they will tend to sing less expressively, paying more attention to the sheet music or their memory of what to do (depending on working methods) than to the detail of the conductor's gesture.

The temptation is then for the conductor to make their gestures 'louder' - i.e., bigger - to chivvy the singers into a response. This will eventually work, but in the process the singers have picked up the habit of only responding to huge movements, and the director has been trained to keep expanding their gestures until they hear a response. Classic state of expressive co-dependency.

One key to this is likely to be, as my correspondent notes, rehearsal technique. Not so much verbal explanation, though, as finding ways to increase her singers' sensitivity to nuance during the learning process in order that they don't all arrive at the polishing phase with a bunch of bad habits practised in.

Useful approaches include:

  • Short-range repetition of passages alternating with brief demonstrations of how to shape them. This gives multiple chances for singers to get the cognitive business of notes and words right, building confidence quickly, and the director multiple chances to inflect and shape the material as it is learned. Aim to minimise explaining, but do use expressive gesture as you demonstrate vocally. Make the gestures you use to direct the singers recall those you used while demonstrating, but make them smaller
  • Get the singers involved in shaping gestures as they sing, whether rhythmic or phrasing. Demonstrate the gesture+singing combination big, and then make sure the singers do it big too. If you are demonstrating big, and getting half-hearted in response, there's your problem in a nutshell. It's okay to do it with them at first, but the message needs to be 'over to you'. You have succeeded in when your singers are prepared to commit to the gesture without you doing it at the same time. Like the previous approach, there is a process of consciously reducing gesture size as you move from demonstration to directing
  • Some directors make a clear spatial distinction about where they stand to rehearse the chorus compared to where they stand to direct them. This allows them to build an understanding of how the singers need to read them and relate to them in the two different locations/roles.
  • Once you have the pacing of the song's delivery sorted out, you can hand the singers responsibility for expressive elements like dynamics, colour, articulation. Ask them, collectively, to demonstrate how they think the music should go. (A chorus who is not used to doing this may struggle at first, so a useful preparatory exercise is to ask them to go through the music in pairs, identifying where they think the 'moments' are.) You can then direct this in a deliberately minimalistic style so as to give them space to make their own expressive decisions.

Underlying all these ways of rehearsing, though, is another layer that will have a major impact on how efficiently the techniques will work: preparation.

It is a truism that the more deeply the director knows the music, the faster the singers will learn it, and this is true at an expressive level as much if not more than at a technical one. The ensemble sings what is in the director's head. So, two things the conductor needs to have done before taking the music into rehearsal are:

  1. To have sung each part in a fully-committed and expressive performance enough times that they can do it consistently and fluently
  2. To have mentally rehearsed the full performance enough times that they can hear all the expressive detail in their head. This is one of those things that sounds easy but takes more effort than most of us usually bother with. It is much easier if you have already done no. 1 though.

This isn't instead of the usual kinds of score-prep you might do (analysis, marking-up, playing through on a keyboard, listening to different recorded performances, practising gestures); rather it builds upon them and builds a full-sensory expressive concept of the song into your muscle-memory and your emotional memory.

By rooting a truly vivid concept of the music deep into you, you gain much more leverage to craft the performance into the shape you want it. Your gestures won't need to 'shout' so much, because they will speak with conviction.

And on a related theme:
On Conductor Stillness
Maintaining the Equilibrium

Agree with all of this, but would like to add one more thing: the skill of following the conductor's gesture is something which can be practiced in isolation, just like we practice blend or intonation. Warm-up exercises are a great opportunity for this, since singers have no music to look at. I frequently conduct my warm-ups, and take the opportunity to vary their tempo, dynamics, phrasing, articulation, etc, by gesture alone. I'll sometimes freeze them on some note in the middle of an exercise, forcing them to watch like hawks, but with the secondary ability to call attention to a specific scale degree or vowel which needs attention. This kind of thing serves as training for both them and me, as I learn which gestures are immediately understandable and which aren't.

Yes indeed! And you also point here to the way that the better the choir becomes at responding to gesture, the more they force the conductor to develop more precision and nuance in their directing.

For what it's worth, I find that I behave very differently when I rehearse as opposed to when I conduct in performance. In rehearsal I am moving around all the time, clapping and clicking rhythms, up and down from the piano, running stuff with or without accompaniment etc. I also move the singers round the room, and sometimes in and out of the room to experience differing acoustics. In other words, high energy, constant movement and variety.

Conversely, I will often drop myself out completely, not giving and cues or breaths and forcing them to listen to themselves and create their own ensemble.

In performance I am relatively static, depending on the style of music we are doing. My 'rehearsal' energy should now have been transferred to the singers, and they are the ones who should be working hard now! That does not mean I don't do anything or have no effect, but it is not about 'me' anymore and I try not to distract from the singers themselves - they are the ones creating the sound after all..

In other words, I see rehearsal and performance as completely different things, and treat them equally differently...

Patrick Gazard

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