athlete

A conductor’s instrument is his body.  Though our work isn’t usually aerobic or anaerobic, it is physical.  We rely on bone, muscle, ligaments, tendons, and fascia to be healthy and comfortable so that we are free to use them in whatever way is expressive.

When I say a conductor is an athlete, of course I don’t mean to imply that we’re big hulking muscle  men.  And women.  Rather, I mean our work requires highly specialized physical skills such as the ability to make very specific gestures.  It’s a lot like dance, actually, with its relationship to art and music and movement.  Of course, dancers are athletes, too, so I’ll save the discussion of dance for later.

Last year I slipped on some ice and whacked my head pretty hard, giving me a headache for a day or two, and giving my neck a nasty jar.  A month later, my shoulder started aching all the time, and conducting became pretty painful.  I spoke with a chiropractor, who started talking about my “off-season,” when I could have some time off from conducting.  I spoke with other conductors, who agreed that a doctor needs to treat a conductor like an athlete whose body must function healthily in order to do his work.  This was a new perspective for me, but it makes sense, and has a lot of implications for the work of conducting.
In the same way that office workers are interested in ergonimically correct chairs and keyboards, conductors must mind their posture (many of us call it “alignment” because “posture” seems too stiff, and stiffness is the opposite of expressiveness) so that we don’t induce repetitive stress injuries.  I know voice teachers talk about “healthy” singing, and using the voice efficiently to avoid fatigue.  My guess is that instrumental teachers do the same thing–I seem to recall my strings teacher in undergrad talking about shoulder and wrist issues, and my Alexander Technique teacher talking about working with violin players, which leads me to feel pretty confident that the health and comfort of their bodies is a universal concern for musicians.

After I fell, the chiropractor did treatments and diagnosed a herniated disc in my neck, pinching a nerve in my arm.  Oy.  Bad news for a conductor, right?  He recommended physical therapy, but I’m opinionated to the point of belligerence, so I ignored him and found an Alexander Technique teacher.

Before I talk about Alexander Technique, I want to mention that I started studying Tai Chi last year, too, and recently began taking private lessons.  Tai Chi requires about the same level of athleticism as conducting, and also combines intention with movement the same way conducting does.  There’s also a psychological similarity, because the two require focus and awareness of that moment of time… Also, it feels like conducting… something about energy and imagination… I can’t quite explain it yet.  I’ll let you know.  In the meantime, back to Alexander Technique, which others before me have already linked to conducting.

Alexander Technique was invented by an Australian actor named Frederick Matthias Alexander.  He was having problems with laryngitis, so he started examining how he used his body to see where excess tension existed.  He found that his body was doing all sorts of unnecessary extra work and once he let go of that, his body stayed freer and easier and healthier.  Alexander Technique is mostly about unlearning habits of tension that you’ve developed in your life, and learning to be aware of your body so that you can use it in the most natural, easy way possible.

The first time I heard of Alexander Technique was in Delaware All-State Choir in 1995.  James Jordan was conducting, and in the course of some instruction, he mentioned sit bones and Alexander Technique, and demonstrated on a tall kid that, if he elongated his spine, he would be even taller.  I was intrigued–I was already five years into my ambition to become a conductor, and this seemed like just the sort of inside information that might do me some good in an esoteric field.

It was.  I took a course in Alexander Technique when I was an undergrad, so when I hurt my neck ten years later, I could sense there was something I was missing.  Some connection wasn’t being made in my body.  The lessons helped a lot–not a matter of building muscle as physical therapy would have been, but rather a re-engineering of  how efficiently the muscles of my body support me.  I didn’t need to run faster or lift more weight, I just needed to be able to make gesture that seems to be tense or heavy without actually causing me the bodily strain that real weight would.

The point is, all that wild flailing done by fake conductors is highly unrealistic, if only because real conductors would never last if they did that.  Their arms would fall off after a few years of it.  Conductors, like athletes, need their bodies to be healthy, so they are careful.

But please don’t dump Gatorade on us after a concert.

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2 Responses to athlete

  1. Pingback: Shaq attack | Thoughtful Gestures

  2. Pingback: Vocab Lesson: “Embodied” | Thoughtful Gestures

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