3.1 More posture and taking care of your body
It’s worth returning to the importance of good posture. As your physical vocabulary develops it is easy to get a bit carried away and develop bad habits which can lead to injuries. An occasional sore back or stiff neck after a particularly energetic rehearsal might not seem too serious in the early stages of your conducting career when you are likely to be conducting for quite short periods of time. However, when you start rehearsing for six hours a day for three days followed by two concerts and lots of travel at either end you need to take care of yourself.
Have a quick look back to revise what was said about posture in Technique 1. Let’s also now consider where the basic starting position for our hands should be. Everybody’s body is unique but you might have noticed that in most of the material you have seen so far that the conductors’ hands are usually only a small distance above their waist before starting an upbeat. Here’s why:
- It’s better for our health: you can stand with your hands at waist height for hours, but if they are at shoulder height you will quickly start to feel tension.
- If the conductor is tense, that will communicate to the ensemble.
- Our most expressive means of communication is our face. Try to keep most of the physical gestures below your chin to maximise the effectiveness of facial expression.
- A hand position that is connected to the solar plexus can convey enormous power and authority.
Here’s Sir Mark Elder on the subject:
We should aim to be as grounded as possible. This means being very conscious of our feet and lower body. Watch out for bendy knees, stepping forwards and backwards to turn the page, and generally being on the move so much that we cover 10km over the course of a 3 hour rehearsal.
Consider all of this from the musician’s perspective – they are busy people – we expect them to play brilliantly whilst reading their music, listening to their colleagues AND to look at us all the time! In reality, they are glancing at the conductor (hopefully quite regularly) for very short periods of time.
Therefore when they glance up from the music, or see us in their peripheral vision, they want to be able to see something helpful to them in the position they expect to see it. If the conductor is beating above their head, dancing all over the podium, or bending their knees so much that all the beats start and finish in different places, there is a lack of focus to their energy and they have become a moving target. When it becomes tiresome, time-consuming, or ineffective for the player to look at the conductor there is only one likely consequence: they stop looking. Probably not what we want.
A still, focused posture is a lot harder to achieve than it might seem. When you are standing there conducting, your mind is usually on something other than your own posture and technique (at least it should be!). We suggest you monitor your posture by videoing rehearsals, and maybe enlisting the help of your musicians if you are working in a non-professional situation. For example, if you are trying to stop bending your knees, you could ask a friend in the ensemble to cough subtly whenever you bend your knees in a rehearsal – it’s also one way to make sure they keep watching you!
Here is a short video that gives a few drills to practise good posture. Work on these in your own time. Whilst you probably don’t want to rehearse sitting at a table or with a book on your head, sitting on a stool for part of a rehearsal is a great way of calming down extraneous lower body movements. Try it for 20 minutes, then get rid of the stool and see if you can do another 20 minutes without moving your feet.
None of this is to say that a conductor should never take a step forward to one section of the ensemble, use a gesture that goes above their head, or crouch down with their hands in front of their face. Such extreme gestures can be appropriate, but they should be deliberate. Conductors often do a lot of subconscious movements. If you develop the ability to be still, focused and grounded you can then make a conscious decision at certain times to be more extravagant. Your musicians will thank you for this, and so will your body!