“O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?” -W.B. Yeats
Movement is a vital part of life. Motion defines our very existence, whether awake or asleep. Every aspect of life contains movement, from the act of making a sandwich to the blood rushing through our veins. And like that analogy, some movement is a conscious choice, while other movement is an involuntary response to life.
I’ve had the great pleasure to have been involved in several different events combining dance and music this year. A pair of Tchaikovskys: a mini-Sleeping Beauty and a Nutcracker; Prokofiev’s Cinderella coming up in April and last night’s Salt Lake Symphony Vienna Ball top the list of formalized events. I’ve also done several concerts where we got kids moving to music. And thus: today’s ruminations of music and movement.
To be sure, this is a topic in which I am well-versed. After all, I make my living as a conductor. The physicality of gestures is my daily bread, so to speak, and it’s not just about waving the arms. The good conductor embodies the spirit of music as well as the sandwich-making choices like cues and tempo. The human need to move to music is something so ingrained in the human experience, we should not be surprised to see it everywhere.
Formalized choreography is one element with which I am presently working. That’s the “dance company-onstage-orchestra-in-pit” model. The audience pays to watch the movement. It is all about story, emotion, and depiction. Here tempo is vital. A few metronome clicks off and the ballerina cannot keep point. This is movement tied to music at its most formal, so complicated that it takes another artist, the choreographer to coordinate the movement.
Take one step back in formality and you have the conventional dance step. Last night’s Vienna Ball with the Salt Lake Symphony was a great example of this, and incidentally a fantastic annual event. Apparently, the draw to dance to a live orchestra has enthusiastic followers who will sacrifice in order to do so. The chance to dance Viennese waltzes (and polkas, mazurkas, etc.) with a live orchestra brought people from thousands of miles away. Some patrons flew in from the East Coast for the event. Here perfect tempo is not quite as vital, but still must be in the realm of dance-ability. (Something I try to keep clearly in mind as midnight approaches and fatigue sets in for both orchestra and patrons!)
I’ve also done several family concert events where we got the kids involved in marching, clapping and stomping to the music. If you watch children at a concert, they are just itching to move. Some just go ahead and sway or conduct the music as a reflex. They simply must MOVE to the pulse. Allowing them to do so is very important. Getting them to organize their movements to sound is the first step in allowing creativity and further developing the musical mind-muscles.
There is another aspect of moving to music that is often overlooked: the musicians themselves. Instrumental musicians are bound to the instrument in a certain way, the technique of producing a sound must be engaged before we go about “moving” to the music. The movements are complicated and not always apparent to the audience. Lips on reed, bow on string, creating the vibrations responsible to cause a sound to be produced cannot often be observed, and can never been felt with the subtlety that the musician comes to instinctively know. But once the sound is under control, we musicians also must move. If you carefully watch a good orchestra, you will see the engagement, from swaying violin bows, weaving woodwind and brass torsos and timpani releases that are all reflective of the music, not just the technique.
What I hope to do as a conductor is elicit this response from my musicians, and transmit the motion along with the sound waves to the audience. The music itself moves, not only with the precision of physics, but also with the rush of spirit. Through all the nitty-gritty of a rehearsal, my goal is to capture this essence by the time the audience arrives for the concert. I also hope is that the audience experiences this movement in the performance, even if they are not consciously aware of it. It is as important to a good performance as good choreography, yet more spontaneous.
So whether it’s a prima ballerina on point, a floor of polka dancers, or the subtle sway of a group of 75 performing musicians, be aware of the movement around us. It’s even ok to tap your toes. And maybe, just maybe, you will begin to notice it in your daily life rhythms as well.
Copyright, 2015, Robert Baldwin Before the Downbeat