Appreciating and Teaching Musical Movement in the Symphony Orchestra

Mike Lawson • String Section • November 6, 2017

Share This:

I have often wondered how music appreciation can effectively be taught in a class-setting.

In graduate school, I remember many class discussions as to why “classical music is dying” and how to interest various generations in the fruits of our efforts: to understand the joy we experience within a classical music concert environment.

I think the key words there are “experience” and “environment.” It is not so different from other musical genres; to share an appreciation for it, one must consider the approach used to introduce the music to someone unfamiliar or new to what you wish to share.

It is a given that to really “get” the experience of a rock music concert, you must actually attend the concert. I will never forget my first “rock concert” experience; it was eye-opening and exciting in ways I had not expected.

Many aspects of the concert environment are lost in the act of listening to a recording. There are some types of music in which recordings are the whole experience, and therefore very suited to what is being presented. Any recordings that are based upon a concert experience, however, are woefully inadequate as a complete representation of the intended experience. It follows that in order to appreciate symphonic music, one must be given the experience of an orchestral concert.

What does that mean for us, as orchestral musicians?

It means that we must make that concert experience as engaging as possible; we must strive to catch and to hold the attention of as many audience members as we can, every time we play. I have come to the conclusion that in practical terms, that means we must not be boring to watch. Yes, the quality of our sound is very important, but the way we present ourselves visually both in a cohesive sense of style as well as being a visually stimulating orchestra to watch, is just as important. We must be able to give the concert variables much more emphasis than can be ascribed to recordings of the music we are playing, just like any other type of musical concert does.

Musical Movement/Playing a Stringed Instrument

As a teacher, this has been a subject wont to bounce around in my brain a lot of late. How do I teach my students to incorporate musical movement into their playing? Does it have to be something that naturally develops? can I aid them in discovering that development? Is there some reason why the most expressive and effective use of movement only starts to show up in the advanced level of playing and is part of musicianship loosely tied to technique? Technique is learnable and teachable. Musicianship can be presented and if the student is sensitive to the instrument and the material, they are able to absorb what you present to them. How does the physical assimilation of the body and music work into our lessons and our abilities in general as musical communicators both to listeners and students?

Technical Origin(s) of Movement/Strings

It should be noted that there is a difference between musical movement and the repetitive motions we study to acquire skill(s) on the instrument. The motions we study are what I would consider the act used in goal-oriented specific learning: a function used to learn a certain skill by teaching your body how to use itself in a purposeful and controlled manner. We have all been through those exercises and hours of skill acquisition.

Musical movement, on the other hand, is partially a byproduct of the experience, which intrinsically enhances the experience itself for both the performer and for those which he/she performs. It is perhaps learned, but it is learning an integrated component of creating something musical from the music.

Successful string playing requires a large portion of the body and its systems to be in continual and coordinated use. The students’ postures from which executed movements are built have fundamental role requirements. It is important to give students proper attention and an accurate physically supportive foundation at every stage during the growth of skill and ability. This is the hardest aspect of teaching that I have encountered. It takes a lot of perseverance and skillful maneuvering to maintain a positive lesson “mood”, an encouraging disposition, and to keep a student from losing enjoyment and pleasure with the instrument in general. without allowing necessary attention to dysfunctional technique to slide.

A student’s frustration levels are important to evaluate and consider when navigating the direction and intensity of the lesson based on the individual and their disposition. Frustration is not an unusual lesson experience. But it is easy for a student to feel bombarded or ‘attacked’ when dealing with the unrelenting focus on adjustments to correct hand frames, the various shapes needed for optimal function, and/or where to place the natural weight of limbs in a manner that refocuses unwanted muscle tension into naturally healthy locations in which the weight can rest, support, and allow looseness or stability where it is needed for control. When a student is reaching the limit of their ability to control their frustration, they will often “shut down.”  As the student shuts down, so does their movement.

It is a typical reaction most people have: when needing to re-establish a sense of control (either emotional or otherwise), we tend towards a physical stillness in an attempt to “still” the growing situation.

This phenomenon is worth exploring if you or a student finds themselves repeatedly unable to be free to move due to a lack of control felt while playing.

The degree to which one can begin incorporating musically expressive and musically useful movement is somewhat contingent upon the existing skill level of a student. However, since different students have individual strengths and weaknesses (as do all players, even professionals), there are some students who can begin to access movements and their emotional components at an early stage if they have a strong and functionally flexible bow arm.

Most of a player’s musical energy and movement originates somewhere within the bow stroke and the muscles of the torso (and back) that support such movement. The bow arm’s functional and stylistic use is key to allowing the body to participate more actively.

Correct support for freedom of movement can be evaluated by the teacher and adjusted in a technical approach already part of one’s method used to teach.

I would be remiss if I neglected to comment on what many refer to as the “bow swell”. This is sometimes confused as musical movement; it is in fact an unfortunate technical problem in which a student develops a “swell” to their basic bow stroke that is not intentional.

At first, it may go unnoticed as a student explores how to effectively use dynamic phrasing. Very quickly it becomes a habitual movement that is best addressed as soon as it becomes obvious to the teacher. It can slip under the radar sometimes; so, it is something to keep an eye out for in your advancing intermediate students.

Stylistic Component to Musical Movement/Strings

Having the skill and ability to discern and communicate stylistic nuance and accuracy of contrasting elements in your playing is an important aspect of being an aware and musical player in general.

Some of the specific elements that are considered by adept musicians when approaching a piece for study and performance depend upon knowledge. The more educated the musician is, the more alert one can be to the idiosyncrasies of the composer, the era, and the artistic movements influencing the compositional traits.

These (along with many other) variables are all part of the planning process: deciding how a piece should be interpreted and therefore executed.

The musical movements accompanying such information can be vast. For instance, one can look at the Vivaldi concerto (for violin in a minor), found in book four of the Suzuki series. The first movement is probably one of the most popular pieces used to familiarize a student with position work and has an exacting bow stroke in a specific “style.”

Personally, I have found many variations within my own execution of this work, employed for phrasing and to lend desired substance to the sound. To list a few of the things to consider in this situation are:

• the quickness of the stroke,

• the quality of pause between each stroke,

• the hardness or softness of the tone beneath the articulation,

• the contact point,

• the area in which the bow touches down and leaves the string,

• the amount of bow tilt,

• the tempo,

• how vibrato is used (or not used)

• the length/speed/style of tapered phrases

• where the bow will breathe.

Although these seem individually subtle, when it comes to making a gesture, it is necessary to exaggerate to what feels like ridiculous degrees. I try to remind myself of what it felt like as a student to be given an instruction, to follow that instruction, only to be treated as if I had not done anything of the sort.

To understand just how exponential, one must make musical gestures for them to come across as intended to the other side of the sound, it is usually by watching or listening to their own performance that the student can finally comprehend the effort required.

I think this is a great place for adding movement to a player’s comfort zone. Have them do something with their body to assist in communicating whatever musical request they are trying to fulfill, as if visually, they get to “cheat” a little by the clues they give away with their body language.

Task them with experimentation in private where they can record and evaluate the way they look and move as they experiment. It is a vulnerable activity, so doing it alone is probably helpful.

When it comes down to it, if the music makes sense to the listener and is presented in such a way that they pick up on the implied style secondary to the musical intuitiveness and sensitivity of phrasing expressed by the musician. It is not necessary to explain or justify the way it is being done. I say that because although we may use educated decisions to guide a phrase, they may be equal to or sometimes surpassed by the musically expressive playing done by someone who has listened to a lot of music and instinctively knows how to use their available skills to phrase naturally and effectively.

Other Variables of Effective Musical Expression

As a musician grows comfortable and familiar with the craft and artistry that their instrument allows, they begin to develop not only the body language in movement to enhance and sometimes direct the musical notions…but they use ALL of their expressive tools. This includes facial expression and postures so personal it is difficult to describe as I have been doing. It is a nature. It is part of the musician’s being joining with the act of making the music that uses every part of language and communication and expressive aspect of our beings to form a complete performance and transfer of intent from performer to audience.

It may be that the specific and localized variables of movement are the basics from which such performing is born. I hope to some extent that is true, because it provides a way for us, as teachers, to assist our students in using their musical abilities for something far more than a skill or function: resulting in the creative and satisfying expression that makes music great in their hands.

Those are the musicians who will be appreciated and who will engage generations to come; because it will reach those who leave the comfort of their devices and recordings and homes to experience something truly wonderful.

The “heart of the orchestra” will be alive and well as long as we make concerts a meaningful experience of artistic musicianship.

The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!