Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Power of Music

In our society, music serves many purposes. It surrounds us continually. It is in the grocery store, the mall, stores within the mall, work, music on hold, music playing at restaurants, you name the location and music is present.

Music is no longer used to exclusively to entertain. It is now used to motivate people to buy, sell, smile, frown, relax, and yes - even to learn skills. So, how many people actually listen to music just to listen... with no agenda? For a while, people discussed the "Mozart Effect" where one listens to the music of Mozart and they become instantly smarter. There is merit there. Music is a collection of organized sounds presented in a coherent and hopefully, pleasant form. It's organization of music that stimulates our brain. How does one decide what note will follow the last? Or, how long the duration of note should be sustained and to what intensity? What makes it interesting?

When one is able to create a logical order of sounds in a fashion that is enjoyable by many, you'll find a musician. Next time you find yourself anywhere out of your controlled environment, listen to the music surrounding you and determine what the motivation or point of the music. Usually, at restaurants, it will be to stimulate an appetite, at stores it is to stimulate the spending and excite the customer about the products displayed.

Take control of the music that is within your control. Listen to what you want and enjoy it for what it can do to you and millions of others.

Funny, with music everywhere, it is sad that musicians can be paid so poorly.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Part II: Body Language – The Unspoken Word. What do I do with my hands?

This blog entry may be a bit dry for those not interested in ensemble conducting. Feel free to hit the snooze button again.

Body language and the use of the hands.
The questions: Does the fingers mean anything while conducting, do they serve any purpose? And, how does the conductor manage their hands when not actively being used?

Two good questions rarely discussed. Firstly, when using the hands, are the fingers open and spread apart? Are they closed and cupped? Or, perhaps the hands are somewhere between the two. The thought here is all about the psychologically transmitted and perceived communications. In essence, closed fingers resemble tight controls, organized, and a bit stifling. Open or spread fingers is just the opposite. It usually signifies loose controls, unorganized thoughts, and too many directions to follow. So, where does that leave the conductor, somewhere in the middle? What communication is intended? Find something comfortable perhaps with fingers together with a one or two spread. Think about the music and the response desired, then decide on what your hand and fingers should show. Next time you go to the ballet, look at the dancers fingers. What message does it convey. Next time you see a mime, notice how the fingers communicate volumes. The same applies with conductors and conducting.

Secondly, what to do with the hands when not actively used? Do they drop to the side, held neurotically to the body, or what? Actually, the best action is…no action. Forget about the hands, they will take care of themselves. The more a young conductor focuses on a static hand, the more it becomes a problem and the quicker it gets in the way of the music. This may seem like a weak answer, but let the hand drop when the music permits...naturally, if at all.

This blog entry is brought to you by: Short and sweet with a "straight to the point" philosophy.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Body Language - The Unspoken Word

Body Language - Positive, Negative, or Simply Informative?

Two events sparked my current blog addition. This article on body language ( and looking at my friends photography blog ( Visual images spark a message to the brain. Do you know what you're telling your ensemble with your body position and posture?

Body language is the conductors most significant vehicle for communication. Unfortunately, there are so many young conductors out there that are simply learning the beat patterns and basic ensemble language skills. Get beyond the patterns and think about what needs to be musically communicated.

Since conductors rely on unspoken communication, it is important to recognize what is being communicated. Make sure your communications are conscious decisions and not reflections of your poor mood or attitude.

Let's start with the primary avenue of communication, the hands. Some messages are obvious, cue the oboes by gesturing in their direction just before their entrance. This is straight forward and clear. However, what if the cellos have an important entrance at the same time or slightly after the oboes? It would get awfully cumbersome to give two quick cues back to back. You can easily get caught up in becoming a traffic cop instead of music inspiration leader. One solution would be to cue the oboes while facing the cellos or vice-versa depending on the significant of both passages. After cuing the oboes you can think just look at the cellos for their cue. If you've spent any time in an ensemble you will know this is your cue.

Another quick thought - it may seem trivial, but if the conductor moves their hand up to scratch their nose while conducting (silly, I know) someone may misunderstand this as a gesture to get louder or even worse, as a cue for an entrance. Remember, the musicians are not actively looking at the conductor, they are watching by using their peripheral vision to simply glean the musical "big picture".

This is a rather lengthy topic that I will revisit again soon.
Until then, watch what your saying by watching what your doing.

Monday, July 6, 2009

My Friend, Joe Dennison

My friend Joe passed away on July 3, 2009. It was sudden and unexpected. It was a shock.

He was both a consummate teacher and student of life. Joe and I were both Adjunct Professors at High Point University. He taught Social Work I taught Music.

For a few short semesters, Joe studied trumpet with me after university orchestra rehearsals. Over time, we built a healthy friendship through lengthy discussions of university politics, careers, social interactions, and of course, music. Since I was also going through a “transition” with my girlfriend, Joe also got an earful of my woes. We were both good listeners for each other. During the “hour” trumpet lesson, we spent about an hour and a half discussion and playing trumpet, then another two hours discussing philosophy, religion, national news, and generally resolving issues that constantly surrounded us. Joe was one of the most profound individuals I have ever met. With his curiosity for life driving him, he obsessed with learning the unspoken secrets to playing the trumpet. As with all performing arts, there is a specific psychology behind successful performing and in our short time together, we crossed many bridges and solved many problems surrounding trumpet performance. He absolutely understood every idea presented and added an extra dimension of consideration at every turn. Joe was an open-minded and cohesive individual who unconsciously healed all woes with his kindly smile and worldly acceptance.

Although Joe and I met about five years ago, it seems like we have been life-long friends. Because of our busy lives, we were only able to meet occasionally in the last months – usually over breakfast at Mimi’s. However, every time we met, it was like we had just spoken to each other the day before.

I will miss his accepting smile. When we last spoke, we were going to a ballgame together. I’ll miss the game that never happened.

I'll miss my friend Joe.