Barefoot Conducting: An Introduction

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The sensation of warm sand between the toes.  The coolness of grass beneath bare feet.  The pain as a 1-inch thorn pierces my flesh after penetrating the thin sole of a minimalist shoe…  I’ve experienced all of these sensations recently, and like all of life’s events it has provided an interesting tangent upon which to contemplate music.

I conduct orchestras for a living. The amount of time I actually spend conducting is relatively small, however.  Depending on the orchestra, I spend only a few hours each week rehearsing or performing, and even less time bowing to an audience.  Rather, I spend most of my musical time alone, studying orchestral scores and pondering rehearsal strategies.

Conductors begin the process early, as the only ensemble musicians with all of the information in front of them. The conductor’s score contains every player’s part, notated so that they can be read at the same time.  (If I’d get my feet out of the way above, you might be able to see that from the photo).   By contrast, an orchestral player’s sheet music contains only their individual part.  It may have some clues as to what others are doing, called cues, but usually they only see their own notes, rests, articulations, etc.

Like a member of some secret club, the conductor seems to have all of the passwords, secret signs, handshakes and symbolism to relate each part to the whole.  But rather than esoteric knowledge, the score represents the conductor’s responsibility. My task is to increase the awareness of how the parts represent the whole.

But what about all that hair flinging and grunting that conductors are known for? And that stuffy know-it-all attitude as we approach the podium? Here’s a video from one of my conducting heroes:

Seriously though, the arm waving is important.  As part of a language of gesture, it communicates to the other musicians the tempo, pulse, phrasing, dynamics (loud/soft), articulation (length of notes), and other elements of the music.  It helps each part relate to the others. It is an overwhelming task if you stop and think about it.  Besides that, the conductor is charged with presenting a unified interpretation.  The challenge of encouraging 90 musicians to play music together with the same intent is daunting.   If the conductor falls into the trap of telling the musicians that he somehow knows better, or is better, then a classic dysfunctional relationship has emerged—the Classical Dysfunctional Relationship, perhaps.

So, where do my feet figure into all of this?  I’ve been fascinated by the barefoot and minimalist shoe fad.  This has enabled people to experience something taken for granted in a new and holistic way, walking and running.  We’ve learned that the mechanics of the foot is important.  The feel of the ground is important.  The transmission of sensation through the foot to the body may be something we have been missing for generations.  It is important to the entire body, mind and spirit, and experiencing it can affect our lives.

I propose that we think of the conductor and orchestra differently. Too often we think of the conductor as the head of the orchestral body—the mind and brains.  What if we conceive of the conductor as the feet of the ensemble?  Consider a concept of music coming from the ground up, so to speak.  The sensation of the ground, the composer’s score, is translated through the sensations of the conductor to the orchestra, the vital parts of the body, interrelated and interactive.  The orchestral body may experience greater freedom to play and engage in a holistic music making rather than being directed from above.   In my experience, musicians have more meaningful experiences and audiences have more genuine responses when music is produced in this way.

I don’t have plans to conduct an orchestra barefoot, not even with my spiffy new Five Finger shoes.  Rather, my new experiences and study have prodded me to strip this down to the bare essentials.   I plan future entries in this thread that will deal with the nuts and bolts of music, and how we can distill the essence of music by viewing it from this new angle.  It is my hope that it will be applicable to all musicians, not just us silent, arm waving types.

Now, take of your shoes and sit a spell!  The concert is about to begin.

Copyright, 2012. Robert Baldwin

*Bonus points to those who noticed that Bugs Bunny was not wearing shoes in the video!

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4 thoughts on “Barefoot Conducting: An Introduction

  1. I wonder if I may have experienced something of what you’re describing here. When I first discovered this studio session with Leonard Bernstein conducting Jose Carreras and Kiri Te Kanawa in “One Hand, One Heart” from West Side Story, I was completely undone.

    The first few times I watched it, I became so caught up in the performance I had to remind myself to breathe. It wasn’t just the music. The sense of intense intimacy and the depth of communication among the musicans is absolutely remarkable – the gestures, the eye contact, the self-deprecating acknowledgement of imperfection. I just can’t quite describe it – perhaps the best I can do is to say it’s like watching absolute self-forgetfulness and absolute awareness happily coexist.

    And they didn’t even have your shoes!

  2. Loved the post and the Bugs Bunny video–truly an education on conducting. It’s timely for me because, although music became a pretty major part of me starting in the first half of my 31 years, this Sunday will be the first time that I will be conducting a performance, when I conduct my local Church choir here in Suffolk, Virginia.

    • What you say applies only musically, but to any executive, manager, or other leader of organizations. A good leader is not good because of what she does at the “podium,” but in the year spent to get there, and in the hours spent in silent contemplation (often amidst plenty of noise) where strategies are decided and seemingly unimportant details (samples of the larger whole) are learned.

      So much for esoteric.

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