Barefoot Conducting: Negotiating the Terrain


When I go hiking, I am always aware of the terrain. The very act of walking takes on new meaning.  But while the trip may take some advance planning, the act of hiking rarely requires much extra thought once I start.  I use the instincts of a life on my feet to negotiate the rocks, tree roots and elevation changes.   

But remove the hiking boots and it is a different story altogether.  If you have ever tried walking in nature without shoes, you know what I mean.   Even if you are not a barefoot hiker, you may have experienced this while wading in a creek or lake.  (also afterwards as you gingerly step back towards your shoes).  Every step is a new experience of negotiating the terrain.  Your feet are much more aware of the rocks, sticker bushes and rugged ground, even before you fully step on them.  That’s why you go slow.  Amazingly, the bare foot responds remarkably well to the challenge.

There are many types of terrain for a barefoot musician to consider.  Remember, we are talking from the ground up, so we need to plan ahead a bit. With a little scanning and awareness we can avoid most problems and even have a new sensual and meaningful experience.  In classical music, these elements are written down by the composer, which also makes them a visual element. We must remember, though, that music is essentially a sonic art form.  In the end, we must consider these elements as sound terrain.

Types of musical terrain include:

  • Dynamics (altitude)—the loud and soft of music and the changes in “audible elevation.”
  • Texture (landscape)—the specific combinations of instruments or voice and their relationship to each other.
  • Articulation (terrain changes)—how short or long notes are.  Also how they relate to other notes.
  • Range (vistas)—the sweep of a melody.  Can be relatively smooth (plains) or quite jagged with many leaps (mountains), and everything in between.
  • Harmony (flora and fauna)—the chords underlying the piece and the pace at which they change. Also the regularity with which they occur or surprise us. 
  • Tempo (heart rate)—The speed and variations.  The pulse of the music.
  • Meter and Rhythm (stride)—the “time factor.”  How notes relate in a myriad of ways to each other.  Of utmost importance to the “barefoot conductor.”

These elements make up a topographical, living map for a piece of music.   And like a good field guide, none of these elements have meaning without relation to the others.  The more time you spend with a particular composer or style, the more you will begin to see commonalities, just like hiking many times in the same region.  It’s like knowing the terrain elements in the Grand Canyon, even if you are hiking a different trail.  (Brahms 4 is this week’s Grand Canyon, by the way).

That brings me back to the concept of hiking.  I’ve mentioned, and you may have experienced, that walking barefoot requires us to slow down.  Often when we hike, there is a destination in mind–the top of the mountain, for example.  We motor on through, perhaps missing quite a lot.  But if we slow down, we might see more elements and with deeper meaning.  We might see the forest and the trees.  If we take off our “boots” we may realize that sauntering is more useful that hiking.  I’ve come to resonate with this quote of John Muir:

Hiking – I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains – not hike! Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’ It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, “A la sainte terre,’ ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.

I’m enjoying my saunter through Brahms 4th Symphony.  The concert is in about 10 days.  Then we will present this particular holy land.  Discoveries are possible every step of the way.


Copyright 2012, Robert Baldwin


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