In my July 16, 2014 post, I described a music conductor. That description was drawn from the great maestros of the twentieth century; men like Reiner, Koussevitzky and Bernstein. There is always value in studying how the greats in any field go about their business, and trying to emulate them. Everything I mentioned is relevant to conducting students. Today, I would like to hone in on one aspect of conducting specifically students: the area of nonverbal communication. This mode of communication is already used to good effect by outstanding teachers in all disciplines. These teachers arrange hand signs to communicate certain things. For example, a fist and rotating hand means a sharpened pencil is needed. Two fingers raised may mean a trip to the lavatory is needed, and so forth. These messages can be sent without interrupting the flow of a class, and the teacher can respond to them with a simple nod of shake of the head.
Conductors can effectively use other signs to communicate what is needed to students. For example, when a conductor opens his mouth wide and moves his hand from the top to bottom of his opened mouth, this can be a reminder to open the oral cavity for better singing. Going from a slouched to straight position can remind students to sit or stand straight to improve breath management. Moving an opened hand around in a circle may mean to sing through the phrase, or to not take a breath at that spot. Any one of these gestures can communicate to an entire ensemble an action everyone can immediately take to improve everyone’s playing or singing instantly. The improvement can then be rewarded with a smile or a “thumbs up,” or criticized with a grimace or sour face.
Before using any of these gestures, most if not all will need to be taught to the students. Each student must know what you are trying to communicate with each gesture. To this end, verbally give the direction or command first, and then tell them that from now on when you want them to follow that direction, instead of telling them you will do this, and do the gesture. For example, “you played that passage out of tune. Listen closely as you play, and adjust your playing so that it is more in tune as you go.” If I hear you playing out of tune like that again, I will point to my ear, like this, to remind you to listen and adjust your tuning.” Once I have used these gestures with the verbal commands that go with them, the verbal commands are no longer needed and the gestures alone communicate the same thing.
It is also important to make the gestures immediately, so they are easily linked to what just happened. If I wait to make a gesture until several bars later, students won’t be sure to what measures my feedback applies. For example, sometimes, if I have just rehearsed a passage and am now having the group sing or play through it in context, and it still doesn’t sound right, I will just make a sour face. Before the attempt, I had told them that they were trying to succeed in playing the passage we just practiced, plugged back into the surrounding music, so they knew my facial expression was referring to how they just did not meet our goal for that moment. Like the smile or thumbs up, it is important that the students know to what my praise or criticism refers, so I make sure I respond to the exact same thing we just worked on.
These gestures are huge time-savers. They often eliminate the need to stop the students from playing or singing, because I can say to them what I have to say through gestures while they are still singing or playing. Then, when there is something I must teach them that I cannot teach with just nonverbal signals, the students know to listen closely to what I have to say, because it is important enough for me to stop them. This increases the value of my words, because they are now few.
All of these gestures can be done simultaneously with conventional conducting gestures, such as time keeping, dynamic indications, articulations, breathing gestures, and so forth. I have two hands, so one can easily keep time, give articulations or phrasing while at the same time my face grimaces or smiles, while again at the same time my other hand points to my ear or gives a thumbs up. With practice, all of these gestures, conventional and diagnostic, flow together quite naturally.