Queuing – You are the Conductor

We all move to music; we dance, we click fingers, we clap to chants at stadiums and we bob our head to a beat on the radio.

Watching some classical musicians live though and you’d wonder if they’re a little too keen to be ‘one with music.’

That being said, it’s important to not play like a statue, or as a possum in headlights, because so much information is transfered to the audience via motion. Why is a live gig to great to watch? Half the time the sound technician has got everything way to loud with the kick drum drowning out rest of the kit, a muddy bass guitar drowning out the treble and an all round instrumental mix that is so loud that the singer ultimately sings themselves out of tune.

Grrr, but enough of my disdain for sound technicians’ irritating short comings (I’m looking at you, Auckland Vector Arena sound tech who butchered Paramores concert there), the reason why live gigs are great is because the audience is able to feed off the band’s energy that they’re outputting from the stage.

The lead singer is like the conductor of the crowd, leading and directing the energy of the stadium. It’s all theatre. A complete audio and visual experience.

Despite being in the modesty of playing your chosen instrument in the confines of a teaching studio, these points are still relevant.

Ensemble playing

Have you ever tried playing a clarinet quartet with yourself? I have (…yeah, and that’s making me think that’s as geeky as rotoscoping a lightsaber to a video. Ha! I’ve done that too, but that’s a different story (and it looked awesome by the way)).

Recording a mix track of a clarinet quartet by playing each part either to a click track or just listen to the other parts it ridiculously difficult to get tight. There is a fantastic quartet Wilson, Kenneth A: Variations on a Theme of Paganini for 4 Clarinets (here’s a youtube video) but it’s amazing how difficult it is to make each part perfectly in time with the others when one can’t see visual queues of other ensemble members.

Another example of why visual clues are important (beyond the obviousness of a condutor to an orchestra) is when playing with a piano accompanist. Assuming both start at the same time, the accompanist has to watch the soloist for the visual queue. If the soloist is as still as a lamp post and just starts playing without even the hint of a breath to queue off, then the accompanist hasn’t got a hope in hell of coming in at the right time.

Portraying the music

When I went to a master class by Julian Bliss last month, one of the mock classes was with a young lady (what does one call a 20-something these days anyway?) playing the Brahm’s Sonata No. 1 in F minor 1st movt. She played really well, with great tone and great phrasing, but there was one thing that stood out. She moved heaps!

Everything was moving. She swayed left and right to an extreme, the bell of the clarinet when high, low and side to side (a lot), her shoulders went up and down and even her eyebrows raised when the music started to reach the higher register.

It was incredibly distracting and I felt almost embarrassed to watch (yeah, I’m one of those who shies away from all those embarrassing moments in X-Factor, ‘s Got Talent etc).

Julian Bliss knew this too, but he tactfully de-prioritised it by mentioning it mid way into the lesson. “Okay, now I want you to play it again, but keeping absolutely still.”

It was the elephant in the room and everyone saw it. I think even the student reacted as if she’d heard this all before, so she tried it again where still equalled normal and she looked better for it. She just couldn’t do ‘still’ though, and it was kind of funny.

Keeping time

Being able to move to the music is the next step up from tapping the foot. A foot tap is a great beginners way of sensing/feeling pulse but eventually to be a great performer, one has to forgo the tap and be able to move the body and clarinet to the music.

Basic Movement

It’s easier said that done to move to the music and for some it’s quite a challenge. If it looks stupid, chances are you’re doing it wrong. There is, however, a basic movement to teach a student.

What you want to do is move the bell of the instrument like a conductor. A conductor will say, swing their arms to a 4/4 count where each downward arc of a beat will hit/touch the base of an invisible box in front of them. Each arm swing is restricted to that space and each touch of the base of the box is the beat. Go outside the box and beats will feel a little undefined. Don’t go outside the box.

Without bringing any of this up, students will sway naturally, but unfortunately incorrectly. What will happen is that instead of beat hitting the bottom of that imaginary conductor’s box, they will be every else. For this I (after asking permission), may hold the bell of the student’s clarinet and, while it’s still in their mouth, move the clarinet bell so that they can fell the ‘hit’ of the beat. Conversely, I might emphasis the off beat too, which would obviously have the bell of the clarinet hitting the imaginary top of the box. One might emphasis this part if they’re being showy with the offbeats.

A Complete Performance

Moving appropriately to the music is not as straight forward as one might think, especially for those who don’t yet have a good feel for the beat and some basic foot tap coordination. That being said, to really bring a performance to life, there has to be a visual element and when playing with an ensemble or accompanist, queuing via movement is a must.

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One thought on “Queuing – You are the Conductor

  1. This is so true. I have watched musicians who make the funniest movements/expressions while playing (guitarist in Pink Martini) and it is extremely distracting. It is also fun to watch people who move well to music they are playing or when it is used well like in some marching bands for example.

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