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Movement Quality

We started this week’s class discussing the difference between good and bad movement. Is any movement inherently good or bad? Well, it depends. Falling down on an icy sidewalk and fracturing your skull is a bad movement. Same for having your foot planted while executing a fast turn with the rest of your body, resulting in a torn ACL ligament. So, yes, there are movements that are not ideal.

Talking specifically about movements related to music making, though…are there good and bad movements? The answer again is “it depends.” In my class, I’m teaching young musicians that their movements matter and I’m encouraging them to think about how and why they are moving. Good movement is often easy for my students to describe. They use adjectives like smooth, effortless, coordinated, floating, easy. This is a great list. We all know that there’s nothing easy about what any musician is doing on stage. There is work going on, but when the work is distributed throughout the whole body, it looks effortless.

Poor movement is harder for my students to describe. They say things like “it looks weird” or “they are trying way too hard.” In exploring this idea further, I encourage them to come back to their musical intention. Does the movement support their musical intention? If it doesn’t, then it needs to go. One example of this kind of movement that needs to go is repetitive movement that happens without conscious thought or control. Think back to a performance you’ve seen where the flutist is shifting weight constantly from right side to left side and back again. Very quickly. Sometimes, but not always, with the beat of the music being performed. I call it “Seasick Sailor.” Rarely, does this type of movement support anyone’s musical intention. Well, maybe if you’re playing a sea shanty. Another type of this movement is the chronic knee bending that looks like a downhill skiers attempting moguls. Generally, this is employed by musicians who know that they shouldn’t lock their knees, so the go all the way to bent knee and then move in and out of that. Both of these add a rhythmic element visually that may or may not fit with the musical intention. If the audience is wondering “Why is he/she doing that?” then it’s not helpful. The audience assumes that any movement they see on stage is somehow applicable to what’s being said musically. This is very obvious for singers, who have a text and are always portraying a character. But it’s also true for instrumentalists, even if we don’t always have a character. 

Now that we’re at Week 5 of the semester, my students have learned to consider how various body parts are relating to others. Some are starting to demonstrate some movement that I call “frozen.” They are trying to get everything working perfectly and holding there. Musicians are trained to work very hard to please the teacher or the conductor, so this makes sense. They are trying to be “right.” This approach doesn’t work. We’re looking for movement potential and constant micromovement. Any type of “trying to keep a position” is going to involve a muscular effort to stabilize. Often, these are the same muscles that are trying to execute the movement. They are sending conflicting signals – stay and also move. Muscles don’t like it and start to complain by hurting.

We talk about “illegal” movements. For example, is it a problem to bring your head way forward of balance? Or weight shift in any direction? NO! The problem only comes when you stay in this new position, instead of returning back to a sense of dynamic center. Barbara Conable, the founder of Body Mapping would say, “You can visit the sidewalk, but you wouldn’t want to sleep there.” 

The end of this whole discussion comes down to the fact that what we’re seeing, as the audience, is only visual information. We don’t know if the person on stage is hurting. We don’t know how hard they may be working. We don’t know anything about the longevity of their career. We only have the information about what we can see on the outside. If we really want to know, we, as teachers, have to enquire. We must engage with a dialogue with our students if we want to understand where they are coming from. I tell my students all the time that they are the experts on themselves. Nobody knows more about what’s going on inside their body and brains than they do. 

Do you videotape yourself and watch it without the sound? Do you video your students? Do you teach them to video themselves? Teaching and learning about the movements of music making is just as important as teaching scales, rhythms, vibrato and phrasing. All of these things, including the movement piece, work together to execute the musical intention of the performer, thereby sending the music out to the world. The movement matters.

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