The Conductor’s Body Parts

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There’s an improvisation game called ‘Conducting’ I learned from my friend Steve Halfyard when we both taught musicianship at the Birmingham Conservatoire. One person acts as the ‘Conductor’ (you’ll see why the inverted commas in just a mo). Everyone else picks a part of the conductor’s body to follow, and decides what instrumental or vocal sound they will make when that body part moves. The conductor then starts moving experimentally to discover what sounds the different parts of the body elicits, and, as they figure this out, they can ‘play’ the corporate instrument.

It’s a great game. These days I use it when working with conductors, particularly novices who often need something to break the ice. But apart from loosening everyone up and getting them into the musically imaginative part of their heads, it is a brilliant way to draw attention to the fact that, as a conductor, all of you is visible.

Mostly as conductors, we are thinking about our hands and our faces. These are the body parts we make deliberate choices about, intending to produce specific musical results. But often the things we want to improve are happening because we are inadvertently giving off all kinds of other signals with other bits of our bodies that are affecting the sound.

It’s not that the ensemble is thinking, ‘I know, I’ll put in a bit of vocal tension every time the director lifts his shoulders.’ It’s just that the dynamic that makes conducting possible is an intuitive responsiveness between human beings. If we want our ensembles to respond only to our specifically musical choices, we need to stop distracting them with all our other extraneous movements.

In this context, I had an interesting experience recently with a director whose technique would benefit from more stability in her lower body. (Like so many of us. It is interesting how we learn our bad habits as well as our craft from the monkey-see-monkey-do immersion of musical participation.)

There was a particular moment where the melody line had a long held note, with the other parts moving around it. The standard advice in this situation is to put the long note in one hand to help keep the held note supported and alive (literally, to ‘hold’ it), while directing the moving parts with the other hand. But in this instance, the biggest obstacle to sustaining the note was actually the bobbing of her knees along with the metre.

So, we gave the long note to the knees to direct, which steadied the whole passage nicely. Since the director was feeling the music as a whole-body experience, it was easier for her to re-assign the musical function of the lower body than simply erase the movement, which can be experienced as disconnecting the director from the music.

The director then asked, ‘So if that’s what my knees are directing, how about my breasts? Are they directing the basses?’

One of the reasons that is so funny is that it is actually also a pretty good idea. You don’t want your basses to be saggy, after all, do you? Nor, come to that, jiggling about too much; that could get uncomfortable. And if you map your ideal bass sound onto the flesh on your chest (guys, you can do this too; you have nerve endings there), it does encourage the kind of open posture that will encourage a rich, warm sound.

So I am sharing this metaphor with you all not just for the laugh, but also so you can have a pleasurable and somewhat mind-boggling time seeing how it feels to imagine bass resonance like this.

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