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.