Conducting Gesture as It Shapes Tone

by Bradley Ellingboe

I have long operated on not only the obvious assumption that singing relies on the breath, but also upon the not-so-obvious assumption that the type of breath taken in is critical to the type of sound the singer produces. Our singers are, in fact, dependent upon our gestures in order to be better singers than they know how to be. And as such, we need to deserve to be looked at.

The voice runs on breath and our singers depend almost entirely on us to show them when to breathe, but if you practice, you can also show them the type of breath they should take in order to the produce the sound you have in mind. This is all done by body language. The gesture implies the breath type. Today I’ll deal with three main concerns in this realm:

  1. The size or depth of the gesture
  2. The speed of the intake of air
  3. Where the tone should ring in the singer’s body

First, let’s look at the size of gesture. Gestures can be in front of the face or in front of the belly. Large or small. Delicate or powerful. The best “text” I know about this subject is not a text at all, but is Rod Eichenberger’s video “What They See Is What You Get.” In it Rod talks about how many things we take from everyday life and body language and apply to our conducting gestures.

Another issue is the speed with which the air was drawn in. For example, if you give a quick, jagged gesture, the breath will have a tendency to be taken in too high. And we have a tendency to impel the breath from the same place that it was taken into. We all know that the breath works better when it is impelled by the muscles of the lower abdomen. Why do we give so many gestures that are so high?

The third thing we must show relates to the point I was just making. That is, different tones and colors ring in different parts of the body. Ideally, the best cueing gesture to our choir is one that shows them what color and dynamic you have in mind. Thus, our job in terms of gesture includes everything I have been talking about. Which is to say, we need to show them:

  • What size and speed the breath should be taken
  • Where in the body the breath should go
  • What tone and dynamic—what EMOTION—you expect afterwards.

All this information is implied to the choir through a variety of things, including the shape of your forehead, the shape of your mouth and lips, the look in your eyes, the way your hands are formed, whether or not you use a baton, the size, shape and age of your own body, the sweep of your arms, the look of your shoulders, the speed with which your hands and arms move, the use of each arm to show a different thing.

I’ve just listed at least ten things that imply what we want to our choir. If one is a choir director then that is one’s instrument. Obviously we would expect that anyone who plays an instrument to rehearse quite a bit, and if they do it for a living, they should rehearse accordingly. How many of us who conduct choirs for a living rehearse in anticipation of the choir’s presence? If all of them do something you didn’t like, perhaps the fault lay with your gesture. That is, what they see is what you get.

In a perfect scenario, we imply everything I just listed. But we know this is not a perfect world. And none of us, and I put myself at the top of this list, are perfect conductors. However, there are several suggestions I could make for self-improvement, and will do so now. These are all equal in my eyes and are not listed in any particular order:

  • Take voice lessons and keep singing. You must have a keen sense of what it is you’re asking of your choir. Keep refreshing that sense.
  • Know your choir’s tendencies. If they are an older group and tend to sing too dark, or too wobbly, be sure that nothing in your gesture exacerbates that. If they’re a young group and sing too breathily and lack focus, your gestures need to be intense and helpful. Also, remember to tailor your warm ups to deal with what they need help in generally, as well as what specific things you will be working on that day.
  • Practice your gestures in a mirror or, better yet, videotape yourself occasionally.
  • If everyone does something you didn’t like, practice having the first thought be “I caused that,” not “There they go again.”
  • Buy Eichenberger’s video “What They See Is What You Get”.
  • Ken Jennings taught me that in order to truly deserve to be in front of the group, you should be able to write down the entire piece from memory.
  • Cultivate a vivid sense of how you want the music to sound—it will show through in your gestures.
  • Make sure there is no physical impediment to you being seen well be the choir when you are making normal-sized gestures. Remove any obstructions, build any platform, do whatever it takes to be seen easily.
  • We all overconduct in rehearsal. Do not let those gargantuan gestures become habitual with you. Once the choir starts looking at you, your gestures must be eloquent—not the physical equivalent of shouting to get their attention, for if you do that, you’ll be teaching them to disregard part or all of what you’re doing.
  • Never criticize a choir via negative statements or teasing. Take what they do well and build upon it. You are asking them to give you a very intimate thing—their voice. Do nothing that would betray their confidence in you.
  • Above all, DO NO HARM with your gestures. Never imply something that is anti-singing or contrary to the way the voice works. If you do, they’ll have to hold something back and you will never get the trust you need from them.

Remember, THEY have something (their voices) that YOU need. Work to deserve it.

Posted on Jul 18, 2011 11:40:42 AM
Filed Under: Choral Techniques and Repertoire,

Bradley Ellingboe

Written by Bradley Ellingboe

Bradley Ellingboe has led a wide-ranging career in the world of singing, including accomplishments as a choral conductor, soloist, composer, scholar and teacher. As a choral conductor he has led festival choruses in 38 states and 12 foreign countries. As a bass-baritone soloist he has sung under such conductors as Robert Shaw, Helmuth Rilling, and Sir David Willcocks. Ellingboe has over 110 pieces of music in print, including his largest work, the Requiem for chorus and orchestra, which made its Carnegie Hall debut with the composer conducting in 2010. For his scholarly work in making the songs of Edvard Grieg more accessible to the English-speaking public, he was knighted by the King of Norway in 1994. As a teacher, the University of New Mexico Alumni Association named him Faculty of the Year in 2008.