Friday, April 30, 2010

letter to my students

The undergrads in my choral conducting class have their final exam today, so I wrote them an e-mail yesterday.

If you have any last minute questions, I'll be on campus this afternoon, or you can always call or e-mail me.  In general, though, the work is done.  Getting up in front and waving your arms around is the smallest part of the work of conducting.  Preparation is what makes that work: crawl inside your score, get to know it deeply and thoroughly; use the information in the score to imagine the story and the emotional journey of the song; teach your body to make every gesture you want as clearly as you want.

Score.  Imagination.  Gesture.  

Have fun tomorrow,

Thursday, April 29, 2010

anatomy of a conductor: arms

Anatomy is a big deal for a conductor.  Because we're athletes, dontcha know.  Which parts of your body go where, and having a sense of how they move, how big they are, how much they weigh, how they are perceived by others when still and in motion... we need to know these things.

Arms and arm-waving are the things most readily associated with conducting, so I'll talk about arms first.  But before that, let's get one thing straight: there are joints and there are bones, places that move and places that don't.  Ideas about areas of the body sometimes get confused with actual anatomy, and we need to be clear about this.  The concept of a "shoulder," for example, is vague.  A "broad shouldered" individual might be thought to have a wide expanse between his neck and his arm, but that expanse is, itself, not shoulder.  The shoulder is the point where the clavicle and scapula come together at the humerus, where the sleeve is attached to the shirt.  The expanse in between shoulder and neck, as far as a conductor is concerned, is still arm.  A public domain image from our good friend Wikipedia...

So, your arm starts where the clavicle meets the sternum in the front of the body, and in the back at the scapula.  Then the scapula and clavicle come together at the shoulder, where they meet the humerus.

The shoulder is a ball and socket joint, very simple and limited in its flexibility only by muscles, tendons, and ligaments.

The humerus is a thick, heavy bone.

The elbow is the joint between the humerus and radius/ulna (the two bones in the forearm). It is a hinge joint that also allows for the rotation of the forearm.

 If you stick your hand out in front you, palm down, the ulna is the bone on the outside of your forearm, and the radius moves when you turn your hand.  The ulna is heavier and straighter while the radius is slightly more delicate.

The bones of the forearm meet the bones of your hand at the wrist.  The wrist is a complicated joint which allows your forearm to rotate, your hand to hinge up and down, and also lateral motion.

The hand itself is made up of many bones, but the important part for conductors the joints in your fingers.

Each joint is a place where movement can occur, and movement from each joint is perceived differently because of the size, scope, and weight inherent in movement from that joint.  Fingers only: delicate, light.  Elbow only: heavier, stiffer.  Shoulder only: very weird and Nazi-ish.

In general, people know that big gestures are for loud sounds and small gestures are for quiet sounds.  This isn't just an arbitrary decision.  To move your whole arm very quickly requires a lot of energy, so an ensemble will respond to a large, fast-moving gesture by playing with more energy.  Putting lots of energy into a small motion is trickier, just like playing softly but intensely doesn't come easily to beginning musicians.  But it can be done.

Hand position is somewhat controversial.  I know one conductor who insists that a conductor should always keep his hand sideways, palm in.  But most conductors want flexibility, and hand position has a lot of influence on tone.  A flat, wide hand suggests breadth.  A rounded hand suggests space and warmth.  A pointed shape (just one finger out, or a sort of "okay" sign) suggests focus.  

When you put a baton in your hand, it removes some of those options from your dominant hand, but gives you another possible joint and another way of moving.  A baton has no muscle of its own, and learning to include it in your arm takes some practice.  But batons are a whole other post.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


A conductor's instrument is his body.  Though our work isn't usually aerobic or anaerobic, it is physical.  We rely on bone, muscle, ligaments, tendons, and fascia to be healthy and comfortable so that we are free to use them in whatever way is expressive.

When I say a conductor is an athlete, of course I don't mean to imply that we're big hulking muscle  men.  And women.  Rather, I mean our work requires highly specialized physical skills such as the ability to make very specific gestures.  It's a lot like dance, actually, with its relationship to art and music and movement.  Of course, dancers are athletes, too, so I'll save the discussion of dance for later.

Last year I slipped on some ice and whacked my head pretty hard, giving me a headache for a day or two, and giving my neck a nasty jar.  A month later, my shoulder started aching all the time, and conducting became pretty painful.  I spoke with a chiropractor, who started talking about my "off-season," when I could have some time off from conducting.  I spoke with other conductors, who agreed that a doctor needs to treat a conductor like an athlete whose body must function healthily in order to do his work.  This was a new perspective for me, but it makes sense, and has a lot of implications for the work of conducting.

In the same way that office workers are interested in ergonimically correct chairs and keyboards, conductors must mind their posture (many of us call it "alignment" because "posture" seems too stiff, and stiffness is the opposite of expressiveness) so that we don't induce repetitive stress injuries.  I know voice teachers talk about "healthy" singing, and using the voice efficiently to avoid fatigue.  My guess is that instrumental teachers do the same thing--I seem to recall my strings teacher in undergrad talking about shoulder and wrist issues, and my Alexander Technique teacher talking about working with violin players, which leads me to feel pretty confident that the health and comfort of their bodies is a universal concern for musicians.

After I fell, the chiropractor did treatments and diagnosed a herniated disc in my neck, pinching a nerve in my arm.  Oy.  Bad news for a conductor, right?  He recommended physical therapy, but I'm opinionated to the point of belligerence, so I ignored him and found an Alexander Technique teacher.

Before I talk about Alexander Technique, I want to mention that I started studying Tai Chi last year, too, and recently began taking private lessons.  Tai Chi requires about the same level of athleticism as conducting, and also combines intention with movement the same way conducting does.  There's also a psychological similarity, because the two require focus and awareness of that moment of time... Also, it feels like conducting... something about energy and imagination... I can't quite explain it yet.  I'll let you know.  In the meantime, back to Alexander Technique, which others before me have already linked to conducting.

Alexander Technique was invented by an Australian actor named Frederick Matthias Alexander.  He was having problems with laryngitis, so he started examining how he used his body to see where excess tension existed.  He found that his body was doing all sorts of unnecessary extra work and once he let go of that, his body stayed freer and easier and healthier.  Alexander Technique is mostly about unlearning habits of tension that you've developed in your life, and learning to be aware of your body so that you can use it in the most natural, easy way possible.

The first time I heard of Alexander Technique was in Delaware All-State Choir in 1995.  James Jordan was conducting, and in the course of some instruction, he mentioned sit bones and Alexander Technique, and demonstrated on a tall kid that, if he elongated his spine, he would be even taller.  I was intrigued--I was already five years into my ambition to become a conductor, and this seemed like just the sort of inside information that might do me some good in an esoteric field.

It was.  I took a course in Alexander Technique when I was an undergrad, so when I hurt my neck ten years later, I could sense there was something I was missing.  Some connection wasn't being made in my body.  The lessons helped a lot--not a matter of building muscle as physical therapy would have been, but rather a re-engineering of  how efficiently the muscles of my body support me.  I didn't need to run faster or lift more weight, I just needed to be able to make gesture that seems to be tense or heavy without actually causing me the bodily strain that real weight would.

The point is, all that wild flailing done by fake conductors is highly unrealistic, if only because real conductors would never last if they did that.  Their arms would fall off after a few years of it.  Conductors, like athletes, need their bodies to be healthy, so they are careful.

But please don't dump Gatorade on us after a concert.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

mirror neurons and empathy

A conductor embodies the expressive intent of the composer and displays signals to that effect.

Singers in the choir must be able to see and interpret them, and here's how that works:

The brain is made of specialized cells called neurons.  Cells communicate with electrical and chemical signals that can be measured, which is how we have learned that certain parts of the brain work on certain tasks.  Within groups of brain cells that work on certain tasks, some of those cells not only fire when you work on that task, they also fire when you observe someone else working on it.  They are called mirror neurons.

Mirror neurons were discovered by a group of scientists in Italy lead by a guy named Vittorio Gallese.  They were observing the neurons that fired on a monkey when it picked up food--let's say peanuts.  One day, a researcher walked in the room and picked up a peanut.  The monkey saw it, and some of its peanut-picking-up neurons fired again, even though he wasn't actually doing it himself.

And this, my friends, is the neurological mechanism of empathy.  When you empathize, you feel what the other person feels.  "I feel your pain," you might say.  And, in fact, the study of mirror neurons shows us that we really do feel other people's pain.  And pleasure.  And everything.  Let's examine a few more examples of this.

It's 1:15 in the afternoon in a 10th grade geometry class.  The teacher is doing sample problems on the board.  The room is about 80 degrees.  Kids are zoning out, staring like zombies.  Inside the brain of one kid--let's call him Greg--the brain discovers that he has been breathing shallowly for a few minutes and the oxygen level is too low.  Time for a nice deep breath.  A certain group of neurons fires and Greg yawns.  The kid next to Greg, Alex, observes Greg's yawn, and some of Alex's yawning neurons fire.  These are his yawning mirror neurons.  Yawning is a hair-trigger reflex.  Upward movement of the soft palate and downward movement of the back of the tongue are enough to set it off.  So those few mirror neurons firing in Alex's brain are enough to make him actually yawn.  Then Hannah, sitting next to Alex, yawns... and so on and etc.

Scientists calls it "social yawning."  The more you like a person, the more connected you are to them, the more likely it is that their yawning will make you yawn.  Did you yawn when you read the description?  Congratulations!  You're a highly empathic person!  If you didn't yawn, don't worry, empathy can be increased, but that's another post...

Another example:
If you're watching America's Funniest Home Videos, you're likely to see a male person come to harm by landing heavily on something between his legs.  You cringe (highly empathic folks may even cringe reading my extremely dry, generic description of the event).  You think "that's gotta hurt."  My husband uses the phrase "that hurts just to look at."  And he's right.  Our brains understand what the guy in the video is experiencing because we have experienced it, too (to whatever degree), and so some of those neurons fire when we observe it.  And in firing, they cause us to experience just a tiny bit of it.

Did a movie ever make you cry?  They spend two hours teaching you about a character, letting you get to know her, making you care what happens to her.  So at the end of The Color Purple, when Whoopie Goldberg runs across the lawn to hug her children, we feel for her.  Literally.

Empathic communication is effortless, involuntary, and instantaneous.  There is no processing of thought--your brain cells fire because you observe something.  That's it.  What action results will vary, but the experience of empathy is inevitable.

So, conducting.

Say you're sitting in the choir, waiting to start singing.  The conductor is standing in front, hands raised.  She takes a deep breath, her hands drop a bit, and you observe these things.  You have experienced breathing that way, so your breathing mirror neurons fire and you experience her breath with her.  You also know cognitively that you're supposed to breathe, too, so you do.

Let's look deeper.  The song is "To be sung on the water" by Barber.  Before you start singing, you see the conductor's face is relaxed, eyes soft and wide, just a hint of a smile.  You know her, you can interpret her expression: there's some love, a little awe.  You've got mirror neurons for that, too.  So you let her influence you, and you feel a little warmth, your energy grows a little more intense.  When you breathe, it's with a hushed reverence, imagining the object of your affection, remembering a night that your life changed.

Will that make you sing differently?

You bet yer bippy.

Art and science, science and art.  They will answer each other's questions.

Monday, April 26, 2010

sending emotion

A conductor's job on the podium is communication.  Never mind, for now, what we communicate.  Let's just talk about communication.

Ross Buck, social psychologist and professor of communications at the University of Connecticut, wrote a book titled The Communication of Emotion (1984).  I think that would be a great title for a conducting textbook.  There's some stuff in it that I think every conductor should know and which I think non-conductors would be surprised to know is part of conducting.

Here we go:

The definition of communication by Dr. Buck is "when the actions of one influence the behavior of another."  Communication, therefore, has two steps: sending and receiving.  Today I'll talk about sending

There are two kinds of sending in communication: spontaneous and symbolic.  I'll have to talk about emotion before I talk about the difference between the two.

Dr. Buck divides emotion into three kinds, conveniently labeled Emotion I, Emotion II, and Emotion III.

  • Emotion I is basically your immune system, autonomic system, and endocrine system.  Heart rate and blood pressure, pupil dilation--stuff doctors measure to see how you're feeling.  
  • Emotion II is where the spontaneous communication happens.  Emotion II is your involuntary expressive response to feeling: facial expressions, shifting weight, hand gestures, etc.  The key word is involuntary
  • Emotion III is your subject experience of feeling.  This is where ideas like happy and sad come in, as well as sleepy and hungry.  

So, in the communication of emotion, spontaneous communication is involuntary biological expressions of feeling.  Spontaneous communication, Dr. Bucks says, is "an external manifestation of the referent in the same way dark clouds are a sign of rain," that is, displays which reflect an internal state because they are a result of the internal state.  Gasping, flinching, and cringing are expressions that a lot of people recognize as spontaneous.  Crying, the production of tears, is spontaneous, too.  Crying on demand, as an actor might have to, is hard because you actually have to feel something strong enough that your tears ducts will produce tears.

Symbolic communication is everything else.  Whatever we chose to say and do, and whatever way in which we choose to say and do it is "symbolic."

The most important thing about these two types of communication is that they happen constantly in "two simultaneous streams."  It's likely that at some moments in your life, you will express only spontaneously  without any symbolic communication; but, you will never, never be without the spontaneous displays.  Dr. Buck evocatively calls it "leakage:" unintended displays of signals that unerringly reflect our internal state (because they are a result of that internal state) despite what we want people to think our internal state is.

I've already mentioned acting, and this is about the time when people start thinking about lying.  They call it "dissimulation" in the books.  There are t.v. shows and articles about how to tell if a person is lying, and most of them have to do with observing spontaneous cues, and observing things that we usually ignore, like sweating and pupil dilation.  Indicators of stress.

There is also the case of manipulating our own spontaneous cues.  A method actor actually feels what she is acting--her body responds chemically and physiologically as though the feeling were being inspired by a real situation.  Tears, blood pressure, heart rate, trembling... stuff that doesn't happen to us unless we're genuinely under the influence of an extreme emotional state.  They put themselves in the state, and their bodies respond accordingly, showing it to the audience.  We believe it because we have suspended our disbelief a bit, and it's easy because it is real.  The woman on the screen is crying: tears are coming down her flushed, swollen face and we recognize that these are indicators of a very particular state.  Dr. Buck calls it pseudo-spontaneous behavior because we're choosing to create spontaneous cues.

We all use pseudo-spontaneous communication sometimes.  If you're hung over at work, and have to meet with your boss, you can fake alertness and competence briefly.  (Interestingly, your boss may not notice anything's wrong because he only meets with you twice a month, but your office mate who sees you all day every day will say "dude, you look like hell." That has to do with receiving and rapport and has very interesting implications for conductors--but I'm getting ahead of myself.)

Hopefully you can see how this relates to conducting.  Conductors, like actors, communicate feelings and ideas.  But they're human beings.  The two simultaneous streams are always there, and not even a conductor can escape leakage of spontaneous signals that very well may undermine or contradict the expressive message he's intending to send.  Also, we deal with musicians we rehearse for hours and hours in preparation for a performance.  They know us pretty well and are therefore good at interpreting our signals, both intended and unintended.

Emotions, music, and science.  Cool, right?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

embodying the expressive intent of the composer

I use this phrase when I try to explain what a conductor does.  In this end, this is all it is: embodying the expressive intent of the composer.  That's what conductors do; that's our real job.

Am I done now?  Everyone understands about meaning, music, and conducting?

Perhaps I might clarify further.

Emotional intent is expressed by the composer through rhythm, pitch, texture, timbre, dynamics, and form; all notated with lines and dots.  We conductors try to read, analyze, and interpret the page accurately so that we might show it in our bodies and lead the ensemble to express it in sound.

We analyze the music to discover an interpretation.  Then we work with the ensemble to communicate our interpretation so that they can make it happen aurally.  That can mean setting tempo, keeping meter, cuing entrances, cutting of the ends of phrases--in general, that's what all the arm waving is about.  But it also means feeling the emotion that the composer is trying to express, or at least feeling the style/character/affect, and letting it fill us up so that it comes out in our movements and influences the members of the ensemble.  That may be why the popular image of conductors includes making faces and untidy hair and being exhausted at the end of a performance.

So what does a conductor do?  Why can't someone who's never been in our shoes nail down exactly what we're doing up there on the podium?

A conductor is a music theorist and historian.
A poet and a linguist.
A storyteller.
An athlete.
A philosopher.  A student of Zen.
A singing, dancing actor.
A leader and teacher.
A shepherd and a guide.

I love my job!

And that's just the work we do to rehearse and perform.  The other work of being a conductor--the business of being in the arts--is a whole other world.  It's fascinating; but I'll probably only write about that part insomuch as it supports or undermines our ability to achieve all of the above.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

jerks who flail

I started out by saying that the thing about conducting is that people don't know what it actually is.  Still, the image of a conductor is kind of captivating: the maestro, the one who's in charge and makes it all happen! Perhaps the mystery is part of the appeal.  Conductors are popular as characters and metaphors, saturating pop culture with abundant examples of misconceptions.  Perhaps I'll spoil the mystery for people, and then they will no longer feel compelled to depict conductors in the ways shown below.  I've never seen a fictitious conductor who was a great conductor.  Instead, I have observed, fictitious conductors tend to be jerks who flail.

Below are some samples of t.v. commercials featuring conductors--I might add, I have never met a real-life conductor who was as bad as any of these.  Even my undergraduate students, first time on the podium, do better than this.

Is this really how the world thinks we look?  Or are non-conductors also aware that this is horrible, bad, completely unrealistic conducting?

In an Olay ad, this woman might win an award for most attractive conductor if she didn't flail quite so wildly.

There are some good things here--women being depicted as the conductors of orchestras, for example.  Hurray for that!  Also, women seem to be depicted less like jerks than men, although these particular woman are no prize (can't set up a music stand?!).  But look at what actors do when they are supposed to be playing conductors.  Ugh!  The flailing of arms, the flapping of wrists, the reachy straightness of elbows, the clutching of batons, the frequency with which gestures linger above their heads...

And, seriously, "magic wand?!"  Bleagh.

There's another that's on locally that features a very young woman in a suit, she is a sales rep at a home store, and the simile is that she's like a conductor because she puts together all your appliances and flooring choices into a harmonious renovation project.  Her technique is wretched.

Of course, these are little commercials with tiny budgets, but actors playing conductors appear in movies (The Money Pit, Prince of Tides...) and big t.v. shows (Law and Order) and these are not only jerks who flail, but often flamboyant European jerks who flail.  Here's one of those in a commercial (content warning--there's some salty language, but how he says it actually made me laugh out loud, so I thought it was worthy):

I wonder if they hire a consultant to coach the actor in conducting.  And if they do, how do I get that gig?!

A third-screen jerk who flails:

And finally, one that's so incredibly well crafted and purposefully bad that I love it to pieces--particularly the little dance at 1:55.

I think that I, as an actual conductor and someone who has dabbled in acting, have a unique appreciation for just how much preparation went into this.  For Rowan Atkinson to conduct this poorly, he had to know the music stone cold, practice the gestures like a dancer to ensure that they reflect the character of the music, move with emotional intention, unify gesture with feeling and sound...  wow!  Also, he's kind of saying, "what if a conductor really were just a jerk who flails?" then answering the question in the most absurd possible way.  And his asking that question implies that he knows that that's not all there is to it.

Thank you, Rowan Atkinson!

So, this is what popular culture thinks conductors are.  It is inaccurate, of course, or I would be done now.  I'll be spending the rest of the blog explaining what conducting actually is, and perhaps why this stereotype exists. My personal view is that conducting is work that opens a window to the best parts of our humanity, so I'll try to demonstrate that, too.

In the meantime, here's Victor Borge's explanation.  He talks about what a conductor does, assuming that you already know that a conductor is a flamboyant European jerk who flails.

Friday, April 23, 2010

i'm no scientist

The thesis of my article in this month's Choral Journal burned a hole in my brain for three years before I started writing.

In summer of 2006, I was at the gym, on the elliptical machine, reading O Magazine.  There was a story about mirror neurons, which I had never heard of before.  I read the article and thought, "I am sure that that is how conducting works."

Jump to fall 2008: I'm in my first semester of doctoral coursework at UConn, and I discover that there is a professor in the communications department, Ross Buck, who writes and talks about empathy and mirror neurons.  I read his stuff, I click through his Powerpoint presentation and think, "this man has already said everything I want to say, he just hasn't used the word conductor yet!"  So I contacted him, spoke with students in his department.  And I started reading.

I'm no scientist.  When I talk about multiple intelligences, I'll be more specific about this, but I felt like a stereotypical flaky musician when I was reading the journal articles about brain studies and social science experiments.  I figured the audience I would be writing for (of course I knew I had to write it up) would be an audience full of people just like me, so I just needed to learn that science language and write a translation into conductorese.  I read a lot, and I checked in with science types to make sure I wasn't misunderstanding as I went along, and I came up with the thesis of "Thoughtful Gesture" (in this month's Choral Journal--go get your copy!  Read!  Or just get it online, but the magazine's so shiny and nice...).

May of 2009, I started writing.

I'm no scientist, but I try to be careful.  The vocabulary of communications science has become a second language for me.  I'm not fluent, but I can get by.  If any native speakers happen to swing by here, I welcome clarification and insight.  

This article demonstrates connections between emotions, music, and science in exactly the way I think we ought to be looking at these things.  They are inseparable, just as body is inseparable from mind.  The way we work, who we are, these are the things that art and science must work together to tell us. 

When I presented the paper to Dr. Buck and some members of the Emotion Interest Group on campus, they brought up even more ramifications of this work, and I hope to ponder many of them here, more than I could in the article.  

Thursday, April 22, 2010


I decided to start a blog because I envied my sister's outlet for useful knowledge that could otherwise so easily go unspread.  Because the thing about conducting is that no one knows what conducting is except conductors, and half of them don't even know much about it because they fell into conducting accidentally and never really thought about it.  The thing about conducting is that, although many people in ensembles and audiences see it and naturally draw conclusions about what they see, few have real inside information.

I've wanted to be a conductor since the 8th grade, and I'm thirty-three years old now.  I conducted my first choir when I was seventeen, then took every conducting course in college plus private lessons, attended every summer seminar and workshop I could afford, had my first church job at twenty, taught high school, got a master's degree in conducting, and now am finishing the second year of my doctoral work.  That means I've been thinking about conducting for twenty years, doing it professionally for twelve years. Also, I'm me, so I've formed some opinions.  For example: ensemble singing can save the world.  I'll tell you why later.

I've already written some about my approach.  You'll find me in James Jordan's Evoking Sound: The Choral Rehearsal, Vol. I; Teaching Music Through Performance in Choir, Vols. II and III; and the Choral Journal, the peer-reviewed journal of the American Choral Directors Association, notably at the moment in your April 2010 issue.

The thing about conducting, is that few people have the inside information.  So I'm going to put it out here, on the internet, for all to see, so at least it's out there and you could know if you were interested enough to look.  I'm going to do what I love to do; but, instead of standing on a podium, I'll be sitting at my computer.  Instead of waving my arms, I'll be constructing sentences.  Instead of analyzing and interpreting musical scores, I'll be analyzing and interpreting... well, the list of things is very long.  Some of the things are really big--life altering big, once you know them.  Which is why I'm here.