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How Dance Techniques Improve Conducting

Alix Miller | April 2011

   It was once said of Stravinsky’s conducting that he was dancing on the podium, and that is what conductors should do – but not in a contrived way. Movements on the podium should be an honest reflection of how the music should sound and look, he will never find new ways to communicate the music.
   Classical dance training teaches economy of gesture. When dancers train they study both music and a wide variety of dance techniques in an effort to expand how they can move their bodies. Conductors should have a similar goal, because clarity of style and movement is needed to communicate accurately their musical interpretations to the musicians. A conductor who throws in a grand sweeping gesture for show is more concerned with how the audience sees his back than what he is projecting toward the ensemble. The musicians are using every gesture as a visual cue of to how play their parts. It is good to practice beat patterns and stylistic ideas of what conducting is, but there should be a foundational technique of movement upon which conducting technique is built.
   When working with conducting students at the University of Georgia, I show them the connections between dance techniques and conducting. Often they have physical weaknesses or limitations that prevent them from moving as fluidly or expressively as they want. Dancers learn how to support movements and develop muscles through years of training, and conductors can benefit from many of the same exercises. Dance, like conducting, marries movement to musical expression.

Learning to Move
   Fear of violating social norms sets in around age 10, at which point people begin to feel uncomfortable expressing themselves freely around others. I find that when I first work with conducting students they tend to be frozen with fear over the idea of using their bodies. Most conducting students would much rather just move their arms in the traditional patterns than explore different possibilities. Improvising or trying new movements makes them extremely self-conscious.
   I usually start with exercises that have nothing to do with conducting, so they can see what their bodies actually do. One of the first exercises I do with a class is to take three or four volunteers, clear out space in the room, and tell them to close their eyes and walk forward as slowly as the body will permit without stopping. After about 30 seconds I have students stop and open their eyes. Some make it to the end of the room, others go halfway across, and some may have only taken two steps. This is a really good indicator of the internal natural tempo of a musician, showing whether they have the tendency to move quickly or are more comfortable with legato or adagio movements. For example, because I am tall, I tend to be more comfortable with adagio tempos. It is important for musicians to understand their tendencies to rush or slow down when conducting or playing.
   I also ask students to talk about what they were thinking and feeling while they were walking. Often there is a moment when they feel insecure or as if they are losing balance. This is a good cue that there is a specific weaknesses in their bodies; walking slowly exposes where stomach muscles may disengage or whether one side of the body is stronger than the other, which is the case for most people. It gives people an idea of what work they should do to balance the body.
   Many conductors have irrelevant idiosyncrasies in their technique; these are often the result of compensation or masking deficiencies of movement technique. I can go to a performance and watch a conductor and immediately see where his weaknesses lie because his shoulders are doing something funny or his elbows are moving outward and kind of flapping. Conductors may claim that these odd motions are their style, but it is usually just a way to cover up something that is lacking.

Feeling the Core
   Another exercise is to have students stand with the spine in good alignment, which should engage both the stomach and back muscles. What they often don’t realize is that the arms are attached to the back muscles, which are attached to the stomach muscles, so any time the arms are raised it involves the scapula, the stomach, and the latissimus dorsi muscles, which are in the back, below the shoulders. I have students stand up straight and reach their arms down with as much strength as possible so the shoulder muscles drop and they’re reaching with all their strength. This helps students feel the lateral muscles on the side of their bodies as well as the latissimus dorsi in the back. When people reach their arms down to the side they notice how the back muscles flatten out and can also feel the core muscles working. It is from these muscles that upper body movements always initiate.
   Early on in my dance career I struggled with the idea that in every movement there is a counterforce present. If you lift up your arms it actually comes from pressing down the scapula and the sides of the body. So in motion there are two things happening: the motion and the muscles and ligaments stabilizing the structure. As an example, conductors often think that lightness is demonstrated by using no resistance with the body and the arms. The opposite is actually necessary; light movement requires the muscles to engage. Using no resistance simply makes the arms flop around like a wet noodle. Resistance allows the arms to move in a way that appears lighter, to float or glide more accurately. If the focus is on keeping the core muscles tight and the shoulders and elbows down, the resistance all this creates allows the forearm to float but stay controlled. That control makes a gesture appear light.
   After reaching downward I have them reach out to the side so they can feel all these muscles stay engaged and learn that most people can reach beyond what they think their natural limitations are. To do this, conductors have to focus on keeping the shoulders pressed down and letting them go into the back rather than allowing them to tense up or lift.
   We then work on reaching forward. This pushes the scapulae into the back and the stomach muscles toward the spine. I tell young dancers to avoid chicken wings (the shoulder blades) poking out from their backs. Shrugging the shoulders and pressing the elbows into the body will make the shoulder blades pop out, which means the back muscles are not being flattened, which, in turn, inhibits movement of the arms.

   The next step is to reach down, then to the side, and then over the head. This is where the body really starts to struggle to maintain proper alignment, because people tend to lift the shoulders up toward the ears, and tension starts to move into the neck. When lifting the arms up it is important to focus on dropping the shoulders down and pressing them into the back.
   Dancers start learning these upper body techniques, called port de bras, which means carriage of the arms, in pre-ballet classes at age three or four, where they are taught to imagine holding a beach ball and lifting it over the head. Formal training of these port de bras starts at about age seven, and from that point on dancers practice them every day through an entire career. These exercises build a range of motion while keeping all of the core muscles engaged. The aim should be for the arms to move freely within the shoulder joints without lifting the shoulders or contracting the upper chest.
   This does not come naturally or easily, and the artistry that is developed takes thousands of hours to perfect. It takes this much practice because in the average person the shoulder muscles are almost always tense. Tension in the core muscles results in an unnecessary contraction of the arms, shoulders, and neck. This is the result of faulty alignment of the pelvis, stomach and ribs. To simply ask a conductor to start conducting expressively without this kind of work or body awareness will limit how expressive gestures can be. I recommend that conductors work on these reaching exercises often.

Improvised Movement
   After showing students how there muscles interact to create movement, I use improvisation to encourage them to look at music differently. I have everyone close their eyes and listen to a piece of music. I don’t want them to think about the notes on the page, but rather to focus on whatever imagery is evoked. The goal is to describe the music without using musical terms. This can be simple descriptors like scary, sad, chaotic, harsh, or it can be a scene or story. The second movement of Holst’s First Suite always reminds me of a game of tag and darting back and forth. If I were to conduct it, there would be a sense of playfulness and the movements would be a little more darting rather than frenetic or chaotic.
   Many conducting teachers are starting to incorporate Hungarian dancer Rudolf Laban’s movement theories and notation systems. He has eight effort shape actions – press, flick, ring, dab, slash, glide, thrust, and float – and every movement imaginable falls into one of these categories. I will occasionally write them on the board, and students can immediately associate one or two with the music they are listening to. They might describe music as slashing or say a section seems to glide or float along.
   After students decide which of these words best fits music, I have them physically demonstrate their descriptions through movement improvisation. The goal is for them to look like the music without using any beat patterns. This is extremely difficult for conductors to do. It is ingrained that when there is a crescendo the left hand reaches upward with the palm up. I want students to show a crescendo with the whole body. When the musical phrase or style changes, the body should react accordingly. This exercise can be expanded by examining the various voices in the music individually. Focusing on the percussion, bass line, or inner voices separately may produce different descriptions of what the music shows.
   If people have difficulty describing the music, Laban’s words are ideal. Movement theory defines a press as a bound, sustained, strong movement, and while most people don’t need to worry about movement theory, if you tell 100 people to press something, they all will do roughly the same thing. When people start to improvise with movement they can use those words as a guide. Saying that music evokes sadness gives a feeling to produce but not much information on how to communicate that. Sadness might be conveyed by pressing, and anger could be shown through thrusting or slashing. After students come up with their descriptor words, they should try to move in a way that depicts the music. There are no rules for this, other than a ban on conducting patterns.
   In modern dance classes, the dance teacher often sings the movements. This isn’t singing the music that the movement goes to, but actually calling, “da-da, swish-swish.” It sounds ridiculous, but there are some famous choreographers who use sounds rather than choreographing terminology; they give verbal cues about how a movement sounds, and that immediately tells the dancer how it should look. It is easy to get a group of dancers to do a movement with the same quality by just making a sound. Conducting is basically the reverse of this – giving visual cues for how something should sound.
   I next have musicians move to an 8- or 16-count phrase, paying attention to note length. They should move to the phrase following what the notes do; the body should move and react exactly to the note lengths. This makes conductors self-conscious, so it often starts as very simple movements, such as reaching up with one arm for a high note. I want them to follow note lengths, so if that high note is a quarter note, the arm goes up and comes right back down. A set of four 16th notes could be shown by slicing or chopping the air with alternating arms, and a half note might be an arm gliding from one side of the body to the other. This exercise gets conductors started in increasing the available range of motion. After some practice conductors become quite adept at mimicking exactly what the music is doing.
   Because conducting students are so shy, the first movements they make tend to be extremely small; I liken advancing through this exercise as going from one to ten on a volume control. That high note where the arm reaches high should start increasing in volume, which may lead to reaching and stepping up on the balls of the feet or even jumping. A lower note could be indicated by crouching down or curving the upper body over. I call out the volume and find this is a really easy and effective way to get people to move beyond what they believe they are capable of.
   In dance classes, if you start moving at a volume of four and then ask for more, the dancers make larger and larger movements to the point at which they start running and jumping. They eventually stop mimicking each moment of the music and start thinking of the overall phrasing. Instead of chopping movements for 16th notes, they start running and then jump up in the air for a quarter note and crouch down for the next. It gets bigger until they reach the 10 volume where all chaos breaks loose, and people are running, jumping, and using the eight Laban words as ideas. It is difficult to get musicians to this point, but I want to see conductors out of breath. When people move with so much intensity that they become winded, they naturally breathe at the appropriate point of the phrase.

Independent Study
   Band and orchestra directors can do these exercises in the quiet of their own homes and develop these skills without an audience. For conductors, each rehearsal is a performance, and it is easy to get caught up in how it looks and how people might to react to it. When I set out to choreograph a work, I don’t have dancers in the studio with me, I begin in the studio alone. I start to play and see where my body goes.
   Most colleges have dance departments, and it would be beneficial to watch a class; I typically invite University of Georgia conducting students to attend a ballet or modern dance class and see how the bodies react to all the varying tempi and musical ideas.
There are many good sources to explore other ways for the upper body to move and more scientific studies on the upper body. Laban for Actors and Dancers by Gene Newlove provides some nice exercises and explanations of qualities of movement and gives some good situational examples.
   Any beginning ballet basics book is beneficial, although it may be difficult for someone who has never tried it. The eight ballet port de bras are always listed. One that talks about the science behind ballet and has a good chapter on the upper body is Both Sides of the Mirror: The Science and Art of Ballet by Anna Paskezska.
   An excellent dance performance video is called American Ballet Theatre Now: Variety and Virtuosity. It has varied excerpts from classical ballets to modern ones. One excerpt I show to conducting classes is called “Remanso” by the choreographer Nacho Duato.

   A conducting student at University of Georgia takes three or four undergraduate conducting classes, compared to dancers, who have countless hours of dance technique under their belts,  but musicians can benefit from the same techniques. They can explore larger ranges of motion and then bring them back into the traditional conducting patterns and see how left arm gestures can benefit from new movement ideas. Because we all learn and move from muscle memory, what the body naturally does is based on the vocabulary of movement that has been learned. Someone who hasn’t thought through how arm motion originates in the core or experimented with various motions has restricted movement.