On Conducting Technique and Tracker Action

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This is something of a niche metaphor, but it is nonetheless pretty appropriate for choral conductors, given that the relationship between choir and organ is so ingrained in British musical life as to be the title of a well-established magazine for the sector.

Tracker action is a type of mechanism for linking the keys on an organ to the pipes that make the sound. In modern organs, this is usually done electronically, but the traditional method was entirely mechanical, making the connection with a series of interlinked levers. A university friend of mine, who had spent some time as an organ builder after leaving school before returning to education, described the efficiency and responsiveness of a really good tracker action in words to this effect:

Imagine you are moving this pencil along a table. When you move this end [demonstrates], you don’t have to wait for the other end to follow.

Of course, if any of the joints in the action are a little bit loose or wobbly, you don’t get anything like this immediacy of response, instead experiencing a disorienting lag between pressing each key and hearing the note sound.

This mechanism came to mind recently when I was working on technique with a conductor who wanted his choirs to sing more purposefully, more proactively. There was a tendency to passivity in their singing, he felt; a sense that the prevailing ethos within the music was a polite: ‘After you,’ ‘No, after you’.

I am sure that many conductors know how this feels. That slight lag between gesture and sound can make it feel like you are conducting through treacle, everything gets a bit sticky and clogged-up rather than flowing. It can inveigle you into putting more energy into the gestures to try and chivvy people along, only to find that the singers get habituated to that extra oomph and start to treat that as the norm. Thus we are trained into over-conducting.

The conductor I was working with hadn’t been sucked into that kind of escalating co-dependency, but one could see on the video footage of their conducting, there was a degree of extraneous movement in the joints, especially knees and upper body. It was quite subtle, and also quite musical – the gentle undulations had a lilt and flow that matched the expressive world of the music very aptly.

But it also correlated very clearly with the times when the choir were hanging on the back end of the tempo. When the conducting frame was more stable, with the only visible movement being that directly related to the conducting gesture, the singers were much more likely to meet the gestures at the ictus, rather than reacting after it had happened.

From these observations, I inferred that the ‘give’ in the conducting frame was acting like loose joints in a tracker action, introducing a small element of lag in the whole process. It may also take some verbal intervention to change the collective habits of the singers’ relationship with gesture (as I have noted before, the same processes that retain skill also perpetuate well-rehearsed unhelpful behaviours), but tightening up the frame of the conducting instrument will remove the gestural invitation to delay the onset of sound.

Of course, this remains hypothesis, as we have been doing this work by zoom during lockdown, but hopefully the opportunity to practice the adjustments to technique while unable to rehearse live will set the gestures up to succeed when live music-making can resume. Indeed, for this kind of reset of both technical and interactional habits, the enforced hiatus may prove to be quite useful in interrupting previous patterns. We take our brightsides where we can find them.

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