On Mouthing the Words
A reasonably common conversation I have with directors when working with them on their technique is to suggest that they could usefully stop mouthing the words to the music they are conducting. They very rarely ask why (it is generally known to be a good idea), but they do object that it is very difficult. Well, I’m not going to argue with that.
But it’s probably worthwhile reflecting both on why people find it hard to stop doing this, and why they can become better directors if they do. It’s not so much that it’s a bad thing (though it can introduce specific technical flaws), but that it limits what you can achieve with your singers.
So, the reason people want to mouth the words is primarily because they become directors by first having been singers. Their foundational experience of musical expression involved the words coming out of their mouths. So it’s deeply-rooted not just in the sense of habit, but also in the way they think in music. A typical response to stopping mouthing the words is that the director no longer feels expressive, or that they feel disconnected from the music. (Interestingly, the singers don’t often share this impression - it is very useful to have them on hand to reassure a director that they still look musical.)
The reasons why it is worth developing the capacity to resist this automatic response, though, are quite compelling. Any one of these would be enough to make a strong case, let alone all added together.
- You are effectively directing the song in two simultaneous dimensions, with your mouth as well as your hands. Given that these two dimensions are of quite different physical shape and size, it is almost impossible to guarantee that they will be exactly coordinated all of the time. So, if some singers are looking at your hands and some at your mouth, you will have problems with synchronisation. This is the specific technical flaw I mentioned above.
- Giving information in two channels simultaneously also divides people’s attention. They won’t pay nearly as much attention to the nuance of your gestures if they are constantly distracted by your mouth. It’s like watching a film in your own language with subtitles in your own language.
- If the words show on your mouth as a matter of course, nobody will notice if you want to draw attention to a particular word. It’s like perpetually crying wolf about vowel shapes.
- Mouthing the words inhibits the director’s capacity to listen. If you want to play close attention to something, you keep your mouth still, don’t you? You stop broadcasting and focus on receiving. When you mouth the words, you are singing along in your head to some combination of your imagined ideal and the actual sounds the singers are producing. In order to listen in detail, you need to shift the focus away from what you’re doing and onto what others are doing. Mouthing the words is wasting cognitive bandwidth you could use for more important things.