A conductor’s job on the podium is communication. Never mind, for now, what we communicate. Let’s just talk about communication.
Ross Buck, social psychologist and professor of communications at the University of Connecticut, wrote a book titled The Communication of Emotion (1984). I think that would be a great title for a conducting textbook. There’s some stuff in it that I think every conductor should know and which I think non-conductors would be surprised to know is part of conducting.
The definition of communication by Dr. Buck is “when the actions of one influence the behavior of another.” Communication, therefore, has two steps: sending and receiving. Today I’ll talk about sending
There are two kinds of sending in communication: spontaneous and symbolic. I’ll have to talk about emotion before I talk about the difference between the two.
Dr. Buck divides emotion into three kinds, conveniently labeled Emotion I, Emotion II, and Emotion III.
- Emotion I is basically your immune system, autonomic system, and endocrine system. Heart rate and blood pressure, pupil dilation–stuff doctors measure to see how you’re feeling.
- Emotion II is where the spontaneous communication happens. Emotion II is your involuntary expressive response to feeling: facial expressions, shifting weight, hand gestures, etc. The key word is involuntary.
- Emotion III is your subject experience of feeling. This is where ideas like happy and sad come in, as well as sleepy and hungry.
So, in the communication of emotion, spontaneous communication is involuntary biological expressions of feeling. Spontaneous communication, Dr. Bucks says, is “an external manifestation of the referent in the same way dark clouds are a sign of rain,” that is, displays which reflect an internal state because they are a result of the internal state. Gasping, flinching, and cringing are expressions that a lot of people recognize as spontaneous. Crying, the production of tears, is spontaneous, too. Crying on demand, as an actor might have to, is hard because you actually have to feel something strong enough that your tears ducts will produce tears.
Symbolic communication is everything else. Whatever we chose to say and do, and whatever way in which we choose to say and do it is “symbolic.”
The most important thing about these two types of communication is that they happen constantly in “two simultaneous streams.” It’s likely that at some moments in your life, you will express only spontaneously without any symbolic communication; but, you will never, never be without the spontaneous displays. Dr. Buck evocatively calls it “leakage:” unintended displays of signals that unerringly reflect our internal state (because they are a result of that internal state) despite what we want people to think our internal state is.
I’ve already mentioned acting, and this is about the time when people start thinking about lying. They call it “dissimulation” in the books. There are t.v. shows and articles about how to tell if a person is lying, and most of them have to do with observing spontaneous cues, and observing things that we usually ignore, like sweating and pupil dilation. Indicators of stress.
There is also the case of manipulating our own spontaneous cues. A method actor actually feels what she is acting–her body responds chemically and physiologically as though the feeling were being inspired by a real situation. Tears, blood pressure, heart rate, trembling… stuff that doesn’t happen to us unless we’re genuinely under the influence of an extreme emotional state. They put themselves in the state, and their bodies respond accordingly, showing it to the audience. We believe it because we have suspended our disbelief a bit, and it’s easy because it is real. The woman on the screen is crying: tears are coming down her flushed, swollen face and we recognize that these are indicators of a very particular state. Dr. Buck calls it pseudo-spontaneous behavior because we’re choosing to create spontaneous cues.
We all use pseudo-spontaneous communication sometimes. If you’re hung over at work, and have to meet with your boss, you can fake alertness and competence briefly. (Interestingly, your boss may not notice anything’s wrong because he only meets with you twice a month, but your office mate who sees you all day every day will say “dude, you look like hell.” That has to do with receiving and rapport and has very interesting implications for conductors–but I’m getting ahead of myself.)
Hopefully you can see how this relates to conducting. Conductors, like actors, communicate feelings and ideas. But they’re human beings. The two simultaneous streams are always there, and not even a conductor can escape leakage of spontaneous signals that very well may undermine or contradict the expressive message he’s intending to send. Also, we deal with musicians we rehearse for hours and hours in preparation for a performance. They know us pretty well and are therefore good at interpreting our signals, both intended and unintended.
Emotions, music, and science. Cool, right?