Artistic and Effective Conducting
by: Dr. Ryan Kelly and Dr. Jason Paulk
Part two in a series – previous parts can be viewed here.
Score Study that Determines Gesture
A conducting professor once said, “when singers don’t watch conductors, it’s usually because there’s nothing important to see.” In our last post, we suggested that conducting should be both “artistic and effective” for choirs to perform with their greatest musicianship. So, how can we evaluate our conducting and determine if it is sufficiently artistic or effective?
Understanding the role of the conductor
We begin by remembering that as conductors, we conduct both music and people. In one sense, we are the great conduit between a composer and the performer. Through gesture, we channel the composer’s artistic vision expressed on paper to musicians. Thus, we evaluate artistry in our conducting by asking ourselves:
- Do our gestures look like the composer’s music? Or alternatively, do our gestures look like we are simply expressing our own emotions or no emotional content at all?
In another sense, we don’t conduct spots on a page; rather, we influence a group of people, all of whom are individually throwing themselves at a piece of music, and we direct them toward a unified approach to performing that music. Thus, we evaluate effectiveness in our conducting by asking ourselves:
- Do our gestures help people where and when they need help? Or must we rely on verbal instruction in rehearsals as the primary means to influence musicians’ improvement?
At the center of both perspectives is the musical score. If artistic and effective conducting is evaluated by how well one’s gestures reflect the score and successfully help musicians perform the score—then score study should generate a majority of our gesture decisions.
How does this affect “everyday conducting?”
When studying one’s score, necessary gestures should become obvious based on the composer’s markings:
- Meter and tempo should influence one’s choice of pattern
- Dynamic markings should influence the size of one’s conducting box
- Articulations should influence the quality of one’s ictus and path of one’s rebound
- Entrances and breath marks should determine cue gestures
- Dynamic changes should influence expressive gestures
Too often, this is the extent of one’s gesture decisions. But let’s dig deeper, shall we? We can develop far more musical and effective gestures by studying our scores through the lenses of audiation and empathy. By audiating a fully musical performance in our mind, we can sense how a composition should feel in our arms when it is finally performed; likewise, by looking at the score through the eyes of our singers and players, we can ascertain how the musicians might respond to the score and thereby determine what gestures might facilitate their performance.
Audiating, movement, and artistic gestures
The first step to develop artistic conducting gestures is to audiate a musical performance of the piece you are conducting. As most scores are not littered with dynamic markings, articulations, and phrase indications, conductors must conceptualize a musical performance so they can elicit that performance from their musicians. Without an image of beauty in one’s mind, it’s impossible to describe it to another, and that’s precisely what conductors need to do—describe the inherent beauty of a score through their gestures.
Next, practice moving musically to the audiated score. Don’t worry about your conducting pattern yet. Simply move—feel the music in your head, shoulders, hands, torso, and hips. Remember Maria at the opening of The Sound of Music? Imagine musicianship in every single phrase, and move to that music with your body.
Then consider your conducting pattern. Patterns often get a bad rap for being unmusical, which might be a valid criticism. But patterns are unmusical usually because conductors haven’t tried to make them musical. Discard the perspective that “the right hand keeps time and the left hand is expressive.” Think about the movement you organically felt when audiating the score and discern how you can apply it to your conducting. Another way to practice is to eliminate using your left hand entirely and think, “how would I conduct my ensemble if I only had my right hand—while keeping steady time and influencing their expressivity?”
Empathy, sleuthing, and functional gestures
It’s important for conductors to be able to imagine how our singers and players might view and respond to a musical score. This empathic connection with our musicians helps us discover what technique challenges they might be faced with and then leads us to proactively determine gestures that can help them.
Interestingly, this process also begins with audiation. Your first audiation process was to imagine the piece as musical as it should sound in performance. Now, audiate how your musicians will likely perform it in their next rehearsal. Imagine interval leaps that might present production challenges, long pitches that might present intonation faults, dotted rhythms that might produce sluggish rhythmic performance—the list can go on. The point is: after you imagine these production, intonation, and phrasing faults, determine some gestures that might help your musicians navigate these challenges. It might be a “lifting” gesture before a high pitch to encourage a relaxed production, or a sweeping gesture at the end of a long pitch to encourage consistent breath management, or an energized ictus in the middle of a dotted pitch to encourage rhythmic vitality in the subsequent pitch.
These are functional gestures. Because you are empathizing with your performers and deducing what challenges they will be faced with, you can offer them visual cues to help them where they need help the most.
Of course, it’s important to adapt in rehearsal to the sounds one hears from their ensemble. We’re not suggesting you predetermine all your conducting gestures and never change them. But we are suggesting that your ensemble will respond more musically and more quickly if you do determine musical and functional gestures before rehearsals begin.
Great leaders understand what people need and then communicate persuasively. For conductors—our means of persuasion and communication are our gestures. It’s impossible to communicate something you haven’t determined to say, right? That’s the point of score study—taking the time to determine what the composer is saying and how you can say that to your ensemble through your gestures.
It takes time, but it is time invaluably spent.
About the authors
Dr. Ryan Kelly is associate director of choral activities at West Chester University of Pennsylvania where he directs Mastersingers, Cantari Donne, and Vocal Jazz Ensemble and teaches courses in conducting and choral music. He previously taught choral music at Kilgore College in Texas. He earned his D.M.A. in choral conducting from Michigan State University; he also has an M.M. from the University of Oklahoma and a B.M. from Houston Baptist University. He is an active lecturer and clinician with numerous appearances at national, regional, and state conferences of the National Association for Music Education and the American Choral Directors Association. His publications include a critical edition of Carl Fasch’s Missa a 16 voci (Carus-Verlag, 2014), multiple articles in Choral Journal, and compositions with Augsburg Fortress Publishers. Also an experienced church musician and organist, he is organist at Proclamation Presbyterian Church in Bryn Mawr, PA. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
Jason D. Paulk
Dr. Jason Paulk is director of choral activities at Eastern New Mexico University where he conducts University Singers, Chamber Singers, and Swanee Singers and teaches conducting and choral methods courses. His degrees include a D.M.A. in conducting from the University of Oklahoma, an M.M. in conducting and an M.M. in music education from Westminster Choir College, and a B.M.E. from Stetson University. Prior to ENMU, he taught at Deltona High School in Florida. Choirs under his direction have performed at state music conventions in Florida and New Mexico for the National Association for Music Education and at the national convention for the American Choral Directors Association. He maintains a busy national schedule of conducting and lecturing, and as an author, regularly contributes to Choral Journal, Music Educators Journal, and Teaching Music. He most recently authored a book chapter in The Nurturing of Talent, Skills, and Abilities (Nova Science Publishers, 2013). He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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