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Book Review

Expressive Conducting

Expressive Conducting by Schwiebert

Movement and Performance Theory for Conductors

Jerald Schwiebert, Dustin Barr
Routledge (October 5, 2017) xx + 192pp
ISBN-10: 1138636649
ISBN-13: 978-1138636644
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Jerald Schwiebert is a performance coach and author who retired from the University of Michigan's School of Music, Theatre and Dance faculty recently. Dustin Barr, contributing author and consultant, is Director of Bands and Assistant Professor of Music at California State University, Fullerton. In an innovative book – just published – they examine the contribution which movement and performance theory in their widest senses can make to the conducting of music. In essence, they suggest that conducting can be made richer and more productive if it's considered as an integrated practice using the whole body, and not a series of unconnected gestures.

The authors draw on years of experience working with actors who train to use their entire body (not baton, arms, or maybe hands alone) in their roles. Schwiebert and Barr show that the conductor's body can actually be considered as her/his instrument. At best they claim that this can enhance musical performance because the likelihood is that conductors do indeed already respond with the entire body anyway – in some way. At the least Barr and Schwiebert are committed to ensuring that such an approach can minimize or even eliminate miscommunication. They sustain the claim(s) and advocate such clarity very successfully in this informative and entertaining book.

A conductor would seem to have two distinct jobs to do: to direct technically… keep and change the beat and tempo, supply cues and so on. Then also to control and mould the communication between conductor and players in real time as the performance progresses. Misunderstand the relationship between these two skills and the natural and free expressiveness of which the human body is capable can be (unconsciously) suppressed – to the detriment of the performance. Schwiebert and Barr explain how well-established ways of working in other branches of movement theory and practice are eminently suitable for, and able to inform, conductors seeking to refine the way in which they make that relationship work.

Schwiebert and Barr begin by looking at Tai Chi – chiefly to advocate complete movement, and uninhibited flow. And at the all-important nexus between weight and movement. Expression (in conducting), like poses in Tai Chi, is best thought of as something which involves the whole body, not discrete articulated limbs. Next, the way in which the conductor's body is at its most expressive when gestures and (counter-)balancing of "Movable-Masses" is explored. Chapter 3, "Moving with Availability" extends the ideas which Schwiebert and Barr have already advanced: that we all too often effectively "get in our own way". By concentrating on co-ordination and making all of a body "available" this can ideally be overcome.

Chapter 4, "Performance Theory and Technique", further expands on this; it begins with the epigram, "What you are doing is what you are doing". This part of this extremely well-divided (yet equally well-integrated and conceived) book focuses on the ways which the authors propose to further explain expression in what they call the "musical intention" (the communicative aspect of conducting referred to above).

Once more, this chapter draws heavily on the world of acting. The practical examples show how the good conductor can draw upon such techniques as living in, and experiencing, the moment; and drawing on active (not forced, faked) emotions. And how the conductor with… lots still to learn, let's say, may fall into the traps of "indicating" (telling, not showing); of getting caught up in wanting to "do a good job"; and of fearing failure. For all this may sound challenging to a classically-trained conductor, their writing style and practical examples, the clarity of Schwiebert's and Barr's careful exposition of how and why these approaches work would seem likely to ensure such a conductor success.

"The Body Is Your Instrument", Chapter 5, examines in greater detail how the whole body – including the torso – can be used to greater expressive advantage. Again, the primacy of simultaneous, concerted action is emphasized; as are use of weight, consciousness and some specific, particular strategies such as heels and feet, the baton and expansiveness and contraction. Chapter 6 does an excellent job of mapping the appropriate lessons learnt so far to the business of sequencing the whole performance from preparing for a concert or event to closing it after the other players have finished. It wouldn't be too much of an exaggeration to say that (for a beginner, perhaps) this chapter alone is worth the price of this book – if for no other reason than the authors' advocacy of entering completely into the role. Learn to live the part from beginning to end and the battle to understand the middle may half way be won.

Chapters 7 is entitled "Coaching Notes" and is another example of the very practical (and mercifully jargon-free) tone of Expressive Conducting. At its core is the principle that it is much more advisable to focus one oneself as (a) conductor – and not on what you are doing. The authors then explore specific aspects of this: body movement, aberrations of movement, use of weight again, gesture and facial expression. Again there are many paragraphs which (almost) make their points alone and represent nuggets of invaluable guidance such as [p.123] "If Everything is Important, Nothing is Important"; in other words, do pay attention to what really matters; be selective.

Chapter 8 contains a series of exercises, specific and more general – from warm-up exercises to all-torso flexibility and limberness. Chapter 9 completes the process which has been a constant theme throughout the entire book of advancing and advocating a "language" for expressive conducting. It actually consists of almost a hundred self-contained paragraphs (many with clear and informative illustrations, of course) dealing with such topics as the perils and inadvisability of "Acting Off The Line" (the first such topic: not living in the moment and pre-empting spontaneous expression by over preparing for it). And "While" (the next to last topic, not assuming that a conductor can only do one thing at a time). Via "Eyes Take In" (let the notes and players come to you, don't stare at them) and "Soft Feet" (which aids weight shifting; and for which exercises are given in Chapter 8). The accessibility and ease of digestion and understanding of such subject matter is typical of the style adopted throughout by Barr and Schwiebert: this is an easy and enjoyable book actually to learn from.

Expressive Conducting bases its theses on anatomy and biology; you may at first be a little surprised to see line drawings of (parts of) the human skeleton and musculature as well as photographs and impressions of figures dancing, gesturing, using facial expressions and conducting. These illustrations work for the non-specialist too and are in fact very useful. There are over 30 short video extracts online as part of a companion website, which illustrate effectively the themes discussed in the book's text.

Schwiebert's expert pedagogical methods are evident throughout. He employs concepts of mindfulness, inviting the reader (and conductor) to do more than "go through the motions" (literally) and sieve away the unnecessary tensions – literally, in the body's muscles – so as to concentrate on communication and true expression, not a series of mechanical conduits from maestro to players. Encouragingly, too, we are led to consider the ideas explored in Expressive Conducting as more of a guided journey than a checklist. This may be evident from the first paragraph of the Preface… "This is not a book about conducting technique. It is not about beat patterns or a particular style of conducting. This is a book about how to make what you are doing on the podium more expressive. The goal is to help you be more able to fully communicate your musical idea to the ensemble that you are conducting." Barr's influence and expertise as a practicing conductor is evident throughout.

One of this book's greatest strengths – as can be seen from the way its many examples have been set out – is that it provides reasons and rationales for the techniques and approaches which it explains and advocates. It would have been one thing for its authors, however experienced and convincing, to make the suggestions that they do. It's quite another that they have always explained why these ideas are important and are potentially such effective solutions in the metier in which they have made. And that is not limited to applying theatrical praxes to the world of conducting. But to making the common ground (and even at times the differences) plain.

Expressive Conducting is a short book at 180 substantive pages with over a dozen prefatory/introductory pages; nearly four pages of bibliography, and a comprehensive index. It's also, in keeping with Routledge's standards of course, a well-produced book with plenty of white space and an attractive typeface; the illustrations are clear and easy to use. It's a book that is likely to be of real interest to (aspiring) conductors in particular; and lovers of orchestral and ensemble/band music in general. Indeed, anyone fascinated by innovation and who believes in the virtue of applying successful techniques and processes from across performing disciplines and traditions may well find this succinct and meticulously researched, conceived and well-written book of real interest.

Copyright © 2018 by Mark Sealey.