Gesture and Song

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I’ve written before – both here in my blog and at length in my choral conducting book – about the ideas of David McNeill on speech-accompanying gesture (pdf), and how they can help us understand conducting. But I also find them interesting from the perspective of the singer in performance. Whether and how much to gesture is dilemma that singers routinely face: too much hand movement can be distracting, while keeping the hands completely still can seem unexpressive.

McNeill sees gesture as the imagistic half of a total thought. Ideas originate in what he calls the ‘growth point’ – a moment of instability, of disturbance which separates itself from the cognitive background. To develop into a thought, the growth point erupts in two dimensions: the analytic/syntactic/sequential (words coming out to form a sentence) and the synthetic/imagistic/simultaneous (gestures coming out to encapsulate the whole idea). These two dimensions are very reliably coordinated, with the main beat of the gesture arriving either simultaneouly with the key word of the sentence, or just before, being held until the key word is said. McNeill derived this theory from detailed, repeated observation of how people express their ideas, and also the effects on their expression when the process is inhibited or disrupted.

So, the first aspect that transfers to the performing singer is the effect of preventing gesture. Empirical studies have shown that when people are prevented from using their hands as they speak, two things happen: they use their faces more actively, and their verbal imagery becomes less varied and interesting. This explains why singers can seem under-expressive if they discipline themselves to keep their hands completely still – as gesture is part of thought, inhibiting gesture makes it hard to think. And one does see recitalists with still hands but over-active faces too. So removing gestural distractions from the performance by sheer brute force may be artistically counter-productive.

But the distractions are still an issue of course. And McNeill gives us scope to analyse the problem in two dimensions. The first is the frequency of the gestures. Song-accompanying gestures are distracting when they are busy, when they arrive every bar or even more often – and the reason they are distracting is that they invite us to think of each little unit of musical material as a separate thought rather than taking in the sense of the whole. These frequent gestures thus tell us that the singer is in very local, short-range passages of musical time – and ones which quite possibly cut against the sense of the words. The way to deal with this is therefore to help the singer think in larger units, and identify the focal points on a broader scale, not just pin their hands down.

The second is form of the gesture. McNeill tells us that the greater the growth point differentiates itself from the cognitive background, the more elaborate the gesture is. That is, surprising thoughts produce more extravagant gestures. Now, singers who gesture over-frequently often also display very little variety of form in their gestures. They will often be quite a generalised, circular motion, endlessly repeated, with the only differentiation that of size. This tells us that they’re thinking about the music in a somewhat generic way – and indeed, it could be that if you’re thinking primarily in very small chunks of music, there aren’t very interesting thoughts to have about it. Developing a more architectonic approach to both music and words will throw the attention onto what are the really surprising moments in the overall narrative.

In both of these cases, you can use the idea of the growth point and its unfolding to aid the mental process of developing a longer-range understanding of the music. It’s easier to have a thought if you join in with the gesture that it produces (which is why people coordinate their movements in conversation – it makes mutual understanding easier). So, developing your gestural approach to a piece integrally with your musical and poetic conception of it should aid both the your control over what you’re doing as a singer and the audience’s understanding of your interpretation.

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