Friday, June 26, 2015

The Musician in the Mirror

One of the fascinating aspects of conducting is how you can change the sound of an orchestra by the use of your body.
Everything affects the sound: how I grip the baton, tighten or relax my face muscles, hold or release my breath, swing my arms and shoulders, turn my wrists, shift my weight, and move my feet.

The wrist, especially, affects the string sound. Winds and brass players tend to respond to facial gestures. Singers seem receptive to how you hold your body.

I’ve always been amazed how players seem to unconsciously “imitate” what they see.

Now, with new neuroscience research, I have a scientific explanation for this behavior: Mirror Neurons.

As V.S Ramachandran explains in his book “The Tell-Tale Brain” - 

“Anytime you watch someone doing something, the neurons that your brain would use to do the same thing become active – as if you were doing it.”

“When a normal subject watches another person performing an action – say, squeezing a tennis ball with the right hand – the muscles in the subject’s own right hand will register a tiny uptick in their electrical “chatter”. Even though the subject doesn’t perform a squeezing action herself, the mere act of watching the action leads to a tiny but measurable increase in the action-readiness of the muscles that would contract if she were performing it.”1

The conductor, then, is in a position to create an “action-readiness” in players. Indeed, I easily hear how my grip on the baton and wrist movements influence the bow arm and shape a corresponding sound.

A conductor who flicks their wrist at each ictus easily imparts a “hiccup-y” string sound.

Seeing such a flicking wrist movement, the players tend to play “off the string” as they lift the bow off the string frequently instead of using a firm and continuous bow contact along the strings. 

A conductor with a springy rebound to their beat can cause the same “up-bow” feel as the beats themselves start to look like consecutive up-bows. Sometimes this effect is desirable, as in the music of Rossini, for example. A very sprite, high-energy, lemon-zest type of sound requires clean “off the string” playing. A precise flick of the wrist can assist the string players in achieving this sound.

A deeper sound from the strings is often achieved by very horizontal arm movements and relaxed shoulders. This imitates the long, well-supported bow strokes needed to produce such a sound.

The winds respond to facial tension, especially the jaw. A drop and loosening of the jaw or a lift of the chin can effect wind and brass sound-color and intonation. The breath, implied by muscle tension in the conductor’s body, can shape the intensity and direction of a wind phrase.

Perhaps it goes without saying that singers seem especially respective to how you hold your shoulders, jaw, lips, and chest area. It’s best to breathe effortlessly and radiate “supported yet relaxed” body language.

Audiences, too, react to actions on the stage.  Who hasn’t noticed that when all eyes are on a soloist while the audience claps wildly, there is an odd split-second halt in the clapping at the moment when the soloist reaches out to grasp a bouquet of flowers or some other object?

 You can sense the audiences’ conflict when clapping their hands while focusing on someone making an open and grasping gesture with their hands.

There’s an interesting caveat to all this lest a conductor think they are actually out-right controlling players.

When you watch someone…”The subject’s own motor system automatically simulates the perceived action, but at the same time it automatically suppresses the spinal motor signal to prevent it from being carried out – yet a tiny trickle of the suppressed motor command still manages to leak through and down to reach the muscle.” 1

That is, the player can suppress this “automatic mimicry” as needed.  Therefore, as a conductor I can help and hinder a player.

How often do players hunker down and do their best NOT to imitate us?!!

Players are known to warn each other about a conductor by saying; “Just don’t look up – and you’ll do fine.” Now they can add - 

“Suppress your mirror neurons - and you’ll do fine!”


1 V.S Ramachandran: The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s quest for what makes us human. © 2011 W. W. Norton. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Elgar Spotting – Sea Pictures

I’m in the final days of rehearsals of Edward Elgar’s song-cycle Sea Pictures, Op 37, with contralto Elizabeth Hale Knox.

This will be our third collaboration performing Sea Pictures! We both are enjoying a chance to revisit the work, as we continually find new layers and twists.

I remain surprised, however, that our performance is the only one listed by the Elgar Society’s Performance Diary for this season, 2014-15.

I was even more surprised to see the Wikipedia page for “Orchestral Song” makes no mention of Elgar’s work!

Spotting the Orchestral Song-cycle

Sea Pictures was first performed on October 5, 1899 when Elgar was coming off his resounding international success with the recent premiere of Enigma Variations. Song-cycles (a set of songs grouped together to create a work) as large orchestrated works were rather unusual at this time. It is possible that English audiences had yet to hear an orchestral song-cycle.

Les nuits d'été song-cycle by Berlioz (1803 —1869) is often considered the first orchestral song-cycle. The songs were written in 1841, and fully orchestrated in 1856. Although single movements have been performed since then, I have yet to successfully track down its first performance as a complete orchestral song-cycle.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) usually comes to mind for orchestral song-cycles; he wrote his first song-cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen ('Songs of a Wayfarer') in 1884-5. This was orchestrated in the 1890’s with the first performance in 1896, in Berlin. The first performance in England was 1927.

For Mahler, the 1890’s was full of song compositions, especially those from the poems collected in Des Knaben Wunderhorn ('The Youth's Magic Horn'). Mahler published a set for soprano or baritone and orchestra in 1905.

Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Deaths of Children) composed between 1901 and 1904, was first performed in Vienna in 1905. In England, the piano/voice version was first performed in 1913, the orchestral version not until 1924.

Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde ("The Song of the Earth") was first performed in Munich, in November 1911.

So much of Mahler’s song-cycle works appear after the premiere of Elgar’s Sea Pictures; this is especially so for British audiences.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949) is the other familiar orchestral song-cycle composer; the first performance of his Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs) was in May 1950.

Elgar Spotting in Chicago

Performances of Elgar’s Sea pictures were quite numerous for the first years of the 20th century.  Here in Chicago, there were 17 performances between 1903 and 1932; then a large gap of 50 years. At this time, however, the singer who would become the “definitive” voice of this work appeared - Dame Janet Baker.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra performances of Elgar’s Sea Pictures

January 30 & 31, 1903
Theodore Thomas, conductor
Kirkby Lunn, contralto

April 29 & 30, 1904
Theodore Thomas, conductor
Muriel Foster, contralto

January 20 & 21, 1905
Frederick Stock, conductor
Muriel Foster, contralto

January 12 & 13, 1906
Frederick Stock, conductor
Kirkby Lunn, contralto

April 10 & 11, 1914
Frederick Stock, conductor
Clara Butt, contralto

February 11 & 12, 1921
Frederick Stock, conductor
Louise Homer, soprano

April 14 & 15, 1922
Frederick Stock, conductor
Sophie Braslau, contralto

January 16, 1932
Frederick Stock, conductor
Harriette Price, contralto

February 11 & 12, 1932
Frederick Stock, conductor
Muriel Brunskill, contralto

May 3, 4 & 6, 1984
Sir Georg Solti, conductor
Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano

Thirty-one years later – I am thrilled to offer another Elgar spotting for the song-cycle Sea Pictures!

Northwest Symphony Orchestra
March 22, 2015
Kim Diehnelt, conductor
Elizabeth Hale Knox, contralto

Resources for Sea Pictures

Have a listen to the infamous Dame Janet Baker!