I recently turned in a midterm exam for my Choral Conducting course. It was not quite like any exam I had taken before. The first question asked me to imagine that I was standing on the podium, about to conduct some piece of my choosing, and to describe what I would do in the seconds before the opening measures of the piece. What signals would I give with my face, hands, and body to show the choir what sound quality I was aiming for?
Due to social distancing measures, I have yet to stand on the podium in front of a physical choir. However, I imagine that the intimidating silence right before a piece began would be akin to the rather hollow feeling that accompanies writing introductions for my academic papers. I find introductions difficult partly because they precede the main argument of a paper. Just as it is tricky to conduct the beginning of a piece, when there is no sound for you to respond to, in an introduction you have very little evidence, quotations, or analysis to work with. Even so, the first few moments of a piece are crucial in engaging your singers (or readers) and preparing them for what is to come.
My conducting class has taught me that when you’re standing on the podium, you should never actually approach a piece from square one. Your choir may be singing the piece for the first time, but it is crucial that you have thoroughly analyzed the entire score beforehand. The type of cue you give your singers will depend on the piece’s style and on its structure as a whole, right down to the final measure. This is why I recommend that you do some analysis of your academic sources—or even write your body paragraphs and conclusion—before beginning your introduction. That way, your opening sentences will align perfectly with the rest of your argument.
Last week while conducting by Zoom, I made a mistake that I often see in even the best students’ introductions: forgetting to provide orienting information. I was so nervous about the piece we were workshopping that I began conducting almost immediately after I was called on—it took me a few measures to notice that the student who was supposed to be singing had been caught off guard, and hadn’t even come in. My “preparatory gesture,” which is supposed to act as a cue, had been too sudden and unexpected.
Conducting provides a useful analogy for how to go about orienting your reader. A preparatory gesture should not only help singers enter on time, but also communicate the tone, dynamics, and tempo of the opening measures. Telling your reader what topics you will be cover is not enough: you should also tell them how you will be covering them. What is your “tone”—are you arguing with or against the grain? Are your claims bold and new (forte) or are you subtly adding nuance to another scholar’s argument (piano)? Will you be speeding through a plethora of sources, or slowly analyzing one text? With such questions in mind, writing an introduction does not have to be an ordeal. Your introduction can be short—a mere flick of the hands—and yet seamlessly guide your reader into the body paragraphs.
– Frances Mangina ’22