Old habits die hard, but one slight change in conducting position can make a huge difference.
I will be honest: there are several things I could adjust in my conducting technique. Before I spent time working on the ways I moved my arms while in front of an ensemble, I thought my performance was adequate. It worked for me, and that is what mattered.
However, I had some bad habits that were hurt my body, not just my ensemble.
We ask our students to watch us when leading them through a composition. Our words say for them to play staccato or tenuto, to stretch time or to decrease dynamics. What do our arms say? If you are anything like me, it is something completely different.
Heavy. Strict. Every note performed the same way. Our movements often do not match the instructions of the score.
Part of the problem is our default conducting position. More times than not we hold our elbows close to our body, as if we are sitting in an armchair. This can create an overpronation of the forearm and wrist, and a hunkering of the shoulders. All movement is then generated from the elbow, generating tension in the shoulders and back.
Tension leads to harsh movements. Hard movements lead to heavy playing. And heavy playing leads to the dark side……or just directors stopping the ensemble and saying the same things we already said.
What can be done to change all of this? One simple move…
Bring the elbows up.
When you move the elbows away from the body, a few things change. First, it activates the shoulder. The ball-and-socket join in the shoulder, in addition to the movement of the clavicle and shoulder blade, allows for a freer, smoother motion of the total arm. Broader movements from left to right help depict legato playing and more dynamic contrast.
Second, raising the elbow eliminates the constant rotation of the forearm and wrist. In our default positioning, the pronation of the forearm and wrist restricts the movement of the hand and baton. Freeing the arm from this rotation allows the wrist to lead motion, again promoting smoother playing.
Additionally, the freedom of the wrist leads to more control over the tip of the baton. This is where we can show articulations with greater precision. Small flicks of the wrist show a staccato style. When used in combination with the full arm, you can show marcato style more clearly. And, as always state, broader movements and smoother motions help with legato playing.
It takes time, but rotating about 35 degrees from the shoulder – thus, raising the elbow – can show more expression movements. When motion matches your words, your ensemble will respond.