Monday, October 22, 2007

What we do with our heads when conducting


This is a blog for orchestra conductors and students of conducting. It is partly for me to organize my thoughts, and also to address issues that need to be discussed. I will sometimes draw on studies from other disciplines such as acting and dance, as I feel much can be learned in these arts.

Today's topic is

What do we do with our heads when we are conducting?

I would say this is an issue for almost all of us at one point or another, myself included. My first conducting teacher used her head a lot, and I thought it was expressive, so I did it too. I am still working on this issue, and of unlearning that habit. It's amazing what we pick up from our teachers, and why.
  • Let's look at what the head does, from the acting point of view

The very first thing taught in my acting classes (other than the mental preparation) was what the eyes and head do. This is somewhat applicable to conducting as well as acting. The eyes can tell about the thought process. When someone holds a focus, they are thinking about one thing. When they move their eyes to focus in a new spot, they have shifted thoughts. Eyes shifting focuses quickly is when they are searching their brain, such as trying to remember someone's name. If they hold a focus, and then move their entire head, they are doing an "envirnmental shift", such as looking at a person who has just entered the room. If they are moving their head all around, they are doing an "envirnmental search", meaning searching for something in the area such as a pencil or whatever. It is important to know what you are telling your audience with your head, as well as to have awareness and control of your body. (Paula Homer was the acting teacher.)

So, taking this into consideration, when should a conductor move her head; when she is addressing envirnmental issues. Cueing would be the main enviernmental issue, as well as looking at the score, and watching a soloist or player. A downbeat is not a reason to move the head. So you look at the celli, the oboe, the score, and then the firsts. That would be appropiate.

YOU MUST PRACTICE LOOKING AT THE RIGHT PLACE IN THE RIGHT TIME!

This is the most underpracticed element of conducting, and the one that gives you away as not being quite so prepared. You must practice cueing, and even if you aren't giving a "cue" with your hands, you still must put your eyes in the right place. You cannot fake this, especially if you are inexperienced. I have seen students try to fake this, and usually the timing is what gives them away.

Last week I was watching someone I'll call Geoff conduct. Geoff liked to look at the winds, especially when they were not playing. I think he was just looking forward in the "neutral" position, but this was often when only the celli and basses were playing. The woodwind players were wondering why he was looking at them when they were just counting rests. The celli were wondering why they weren't being addressed, and how he would like this part phrased. While some teachers advocate the "neutral" position, as in looking forward, addressing everyone all the time, there are places where it is not the wisest choice. This would be one of those places. The "neutral" position is best used in tutti passages.

  • Looking at the score

They say that if you have to look at the score, you don't know the piece well enough. While this is true, often there are situations where one must look at the score, such as cover conducting. And, let's be honest, sometimes there just aren't enough hours in the day. But, in an ideal world, you would know every score you conduct well enough that you wouldn't have to look at the score but maybe once or twice.

So back to reality, you need to look at the score.....occasionally. I find most of us look at the score way too often. It's not that we don't know the score or need to look at it, it's more of a comfort thing, sometimes even a nervous thing or something to do if you loose your train of thought. So when you watch your videos, notice how often you look at the score. Did you really need to look at it that much or at the spot.

Also, make sure the stand is high enough for you to comfortably reach the music so you do not have to lean over and look way down to see it. Gunther Schuller advocates tilting the stand slightly toward you so you can see the music without having to bend over or walk towards the score for every page turn. Every time you look down you are breaking communication with the orchestra. Also, looking down too much tells them you either don't know the music,or you have confidence issues.

  • When you don't want to move your head

Often conductors move the head down with every beat, or every downbeat. This is very distracting, and as MT and KK will tell you, gives your power away. Last week Geoff moved his head sometimes 30 degrees on every beat, and even more on downbeats. This didn't happen all the time, only for a few measures at a time, but it was dramatic.

The other thing Geoff was prone to do is also as common (done it myself). This is the head and hands working in opposition. So when you go to prepare a powerful downbeat, the arms go up and the head goes down. Then the arms go down and the head goes back and up to the "O" (my teacher's name for it) position. The looking down on the preparation takes away so much power from it, and causes you to loose connection with the orchestra in an important time.

Most of us are not aware of these movements with the head, as we do not feel them. Awareness is key to fixing the issue. When practicing at home, place your left hand on top of your head. Also, practicing lying on your back will make you aware of when your head moves. Practicing standing against a wall is good too. The key is to bring awareness to your conscious mind that your head is moving when you do not want it to

  • Energy issues that can cause these head movements

Energy and technique are intertwined. When you fix one, you fix the other. Often, trying to fix a techniqe issue without addressing the underlying energy issue is only a temporary fix. The problem either resurfaces as a different technical issue, or resurfaces as the same issue at a later date.

I find these head issues are often related to grounding. Schuller had me do an exercise where I didn't move my head at all, or my body. I suddenly felt very grounded; a dramatic change for me. Also, too much energy going to the head, such as one who has been working on having an expressive face, will cause movements of the head. People who are singers or wind players might be more prone to these issues as they are used to having energy come through the throat and face to make music. Allowing more of the energy to flow down into the solar plexus, as well as connecting to the earth through the feet can really help this.

  • So what should I do with my head again?

You should be looking at the musicians, and occasionally the score. Have more awareness of what you are doing with your head. Watch your videos and ask your colleagues for help. Make sure you are communicating what you want to communicate, and not something else by accident. Good luck and happy conducting.

Well, I hope this blog can be helpful to other folks as well as myself. Happy conducting and please feel free to share your thoughts.

2 comments:

Sue Mutter said...

Hi Amy - Thanks for your helpful conducting ideas. I'm going to Medomak myself this summer and working on Brahms 4, so I learned from watching you and from your blog - Sue Mutter

liz said...

Hi Amy. You might be interested in some research that Geoff Luck from Keele University did, where he looked at how well people could follow a conductor when the shape of the beat was varied in different ways. A really interesting thing emerged that wasn't part of his main question, but resonates with your post on head movements here: he found that when you only had the very tip of the baton to follow, novice conductors were not any less effective than experienced ones. This suggests to me that most of the problems novice conductors encounter is not from what they're doing on purpose, but from the distractions they're producing inadvertently.