The topic of this blog post is conducting sound. I often divide conducting gestures into three rough groups that reflect the intention of the gestures: technical, emotional and sound-oriented. The idea is, of course, that there are times when our gestures are focused on clarity, on making difficult passages or moments as clear as possible (technical); times when we primarily try to either depict the emotional content of the score or entice singers to express themselves (or both of these); and times when our gestures above all are aimed at creating a certain type of sound or at supporting good singing. These are almost never clear cut categories, but blend and flow into each other seamlessly. It is more a working theory than an analysis of conducting, and it allows me here to concentrate on one part of conducting gestures, namely conducting sound.
The first thing I want to point out is that all conducting influences the sound of the choir. At times this feels almost akin to magic. Just change the conductor and the sound of the choir changes. Just the way the conductor stands and moves in front of the singers, changes what we hear. There is no sound-neutral conducting and some gestures seem to elicit a richer, more colourful sound than others; just like some conductors seem to make singing easier with the way they hold themselves and with their gestures.
I sometimes hear complaints from colleagues about conductors primarily beating time instead of expressing the music. I see the point, but I also think that a beautiful beat-pattern is something that is very expressive in itself. First of all, it creates a sense of flow, of continuity, which is an essential element of musical expression in classical music. Secondly, what might seem to be beating time could actually be creating a context for all the musical events; a fundament against which these events take place. Thirdly, a beautifully conducted beat pattern entices people to sing well and is expression in itself. So, while conducting should definitely not be metronome-like beating, good expressive and sound-evoking conducting can happen within the confines of a beat pattern – just as it does in orchestral conducting.
How do we help singing and good sound? Because conducting is in the end so intuitive, it is difficult to pinpoint specific gestures, but I will try to point out a few means that clearly have a positive effect on sound. First of all, our posture plays a big role in supporting sound. This will not be news to you – I am sure you all aware that any big flaws in the conductor’s posture will be mirrored in the singing. But what might just be news is that the key place in my view is the sternum. Just lifting your sternum a little (without extra tensions in the shoulder area) can add energy to the singing; energy, that is one of the cornerstones of my thinking of good sound. In fact, if my choirs start going flat, this is the very first reaction from me. And quite often it actually helps!
Secondly, I would suggest that you try to keep your elbows low. I come from a school where keeping the arms low is one of the most important aims, but I have seen good sound-oriented conducting where the hands are actually quite high, but the elbows remain low. Raising the elbows tends to lead to tensions around the diaphragm of the singers (‘breathing high’). Low and relaxed elbows also take away a tension from your shoulders, which will also help the singers sing more freely. I would also add the word weight – arms with a natural heaviness (not carried from the shoulders) combined with flow create a lovely feel of sound (plus beating down, not up).
Related to the weight of the arms is what I call real-time flow. This means a) that your gestures happen simultaneously with the sound (and not before, which is a very strong temptation) and b) that there is a strong sense of flow from one beat to the next (the beats, after all are just turning points, and the music tends to happen in between the beats!). If you are in real time, the singers can sing your movements instead of only reacting to them. I have also found that beating before the sound often leads to the energy of the movements being primarily up, away from the beats, rather than down, towards the next beat. This can disturb the sense of flow that helps good sound.
The freeness of the conductor’s facial muscles is very important for sound. This does not mean being expressionless – on the contrary. It means there are no unintended tensions around you head area (neck, jaw, mouth, forehead, even tongue). Keeping your mouth lightly open tends to support singing and sound, whereas texting (pronouncing the words with the choir) does not. Of course, your expressions also play a role. If your face is open, optimistic and you reflect the emotions of the music in your expressions, it will be easier for the singers to produce good singing.
Breathing is often made into a big number in choral conducting. Although it naturally is important, I have become a little critical of breathing too much for the choir and perhaps even with the choir because it tends to disturb the flow of the music. Especially in beginning a piece, it is worth considering when you breathe. I have noticed that I try to breathe one beat before the preparation and only ‘open up’ (lift the soft palate to create space in my mouth) on the preparation. This allows the singers to breathe well and in good time without disturbing the sense of the flow of music already having begun before the singing starts. Within the music, unless there is a breath which demands extra time in the music, I actually try to do as little as possible and just keep going – giving the responsibility for breathing to the choir. But where I think breathing is really central is the feeling of keeping the arms and the movement of the arms tied to your breath (especially felt in the sides and the back). If you manage this, it helps the singers to keep their breath ‘down’.
Another element that can be used to enhance sound is the roundness of movements – round movements support flow and sound (especially clockwise movements, as at least for me, anti-clockwise movements tend to look strange). I have at times overdone this, but it remains a good means to create sound. It comes at the cost of clarity in your conducting, so use it sparingly. One variant of this approach is the Swedish klangfamn or sound embrace where the arms create almost a circle (like in hugging a tree). It is easy to imagine the sound sitting inside your embrace. Your movements become rounded almost by necessity in this approach.
One feature that has surprisingly significant consequences for sound is placing all relevant information one beat before the singer need to perform it. For example, it is better to prepare a fortissimo really well a beat before the ff and conduct the beat where it actually happens somewhat more neutrally. This way the singers are prepared for the ff, but do not get an extra gesture exactly when they are singing it (which would lead to an additional, belated gesture). This also makes real-time conducting and flow easier to realize.
Conducting sound is ultimately a physical skill learnt through practice, or perhaps even better, a set of skills. We learn how singers react to our gestures and adapt them to achieve the wanted result. The elements listed here are just a place to start.