Gesture and Metaphor: Post-webinar Reflections

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abcdsquareOn Saturday I presented a webinar for the Association of British Choral Directors on Gesture and Metaphor: How do Singers Know what we Mean? It was based on Part III of my choral conducting book and gave me a good reason to go back and re-engage with the nitty-gritty of concepts I’ve rather got used to taking for granted over the last decade. We had a great turnout, and, as usual when you get a room full of choral directors bringing their insights and experience together, some great thoughts emerging during the discussions.

One participant opened up the issue of whether some metaphors, intended to engage the imagination, might provoke unintended negative responses in some singers. Now the first point here is that this very real and valid concern does not mean we should avoid metaphors: in fact we can’t. Metaphors, in the sense that I was using the term following Lakoff and Johnson, are built in the very fabric of our thought.

But we do need to be mindful in our deployment of them. In my book I have some examples of ways that conductors (probably intuitively) picked metaphors to fit the demographics of the groups they worked with: for instance asking an adult choir for sound like a good Beaujolais, but switching to cricket imagery for a men and boy’s choir.

This can on the one hand be very affirming for the group, but on the other can risk seeming exclusionary to potential members from other demographics. I recall observing a choral society with an ageing membership being asked to sing a Christmas carol as if to their first grandchild; this I felt was not a way to attract new members in their 30s or 40s, let alone in their 20s.

There is also the issue of individual triggers: things that have associations based in people’s past experience that lead them to respond in unexpected ways. These are harder to handle. There are of course some themes one can anticipate – imagery based around the more common phobias (spiders, rodents) is unlikely to be helpful, and it depresses me that I need to specify that metaphors based on unasked-for sexual advances are likely to be experienced as anything from sleazy to retraumatising.

But we can’t know everything that has happened in the past of all our singers, so beyond being generally mindful to choose our metaphors to be as vivid and widely engaging as possible, all we can really do about these is be alert to the emotional tone in our rehearsals and cultivate sufficient openness and trust that people will feel safe to let us know if we use a turn of phrase that has a counter-productive impact on them. And if we work with them to reframe our metaphors in ways that have a more positive effect, we can at least help heal their relationship with the music.

Another participant made a useful distinction between proactive and reactive gestures; that is, between those that instigate musical events and those that respond to what the performers are doing. We discussed how we probably use more of the former earlier in the rehearsal process; then as the ensemble absorbs the music the conductor can hand increasing over responsibility for making things happen to the singers.

Reflecting on this distinction afterwards, it occurred to me that you can only practise proactive gestures; reactive gestures are always spontaneous. You know in advance what will happen in the music, but by definition your responses to what the singers need can only emerge to meet the needs of the moment. However, whilst you can’t practice reactive gestures, you can still prepare for them. The deeper and more thoughtful your study of the music in advance of rehearsal, the better able you will be to hear the detail in what your singers are doing.

And this thought brings us back to one my key take-aways from the session. As gesture is part of thought, more interesting gestures are directly correlated with more interesting musical thoughts. This is what you’d predict at a theoretical level, and is confirmed by the observational data from my research. Hence, to improve gestural nuance, we need also to work on our musical insights and the vocabulary we have to express them.

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