On Conducting (4): Breathing and ensemble

A conductor experiences many minor (and some major) issues while leading a group of musicians.  One of these issues is togetherness—often referred to by musicians as “ensemble.” ¹

Although the individual musicians’ functional hearing is really the primary determinant for successful “ensemble” work, here, I’d like here to bring to the foreground a mini-method that conductors can use to enhance ensemble togetherness—both at the beginning of a piece or section and throughout it. . . .

→  b r e a t h i n g  ←

Experience and perception of human nature combine to speak this unimpeachable truth:  if musicians will breathe together, they will play (or sing) more together than they would have otherwise.  A conductor can and should model breathing at every realistic opportunity, certainly including the beginning of a piece or section.

Now, if you’re a singer, or for any other reason you already understand and agree that breathing is important in music-making, you could skip the the following three supplementary paragraphs.  If however you’re not convinced but are interested, you might read it all!

Instrumental conductors tend to have a cross-section of specific instrument backgrounds,² but not a cross-section that spans all the wind, string, and percussion families.  For my illustration here, I will draw from a relatively rare breed:  the successful instrumental conductor who is, or was, primarily a percussionist.

I have worked relatively closely with two percussionist-conductors; each one was an exceptionally fine music educator and/or performing musician (in different respects).  I am convinced, though, that percussionists who conduct work with a disadvantage:  they often experience and exhibit a disconnect with the flow/breathing/lyricism aspects of music-making.  Percussionists—given that their primary, internal, musical imagery has been developed in the course of making sounds by striking objects with other objects—tend to conceive of sound accordingly.  In other words, there tends to be a difference between the way a flutist, trombonist, or cellist conceives of sound generation and tone connection on one hand, and the way even the most gifted drummer or xylophonist conceives of these things on the other.

One of my former colleagues displayed some rather extremely percussionistic gestures while on the podium.  He did breathe often as an aid to a pickup note, but it was a very “percussive,” noisy breath, out of musical style; I attributed that characteristic to what I think of as the “percussionist’s disconnect.”  (He made up for this lack in other ways, namely, he was an exceptionally thorough planner and rehearser.)  He also tended to gesture with emphasis on the ictus (beat point) in a way that resembled striking a percussion instrument.  The “travel” between beats was sometimes hastened in an unnatural, quick-whipping manner, making it difficult to sense the regularity of pulse.  To get this visual in your mind, compare the timpanist’s basic stroke with, say, the violinist’s bowstroke during a lyrical passage.  Each motion has different characteristics.  The percussionist will often have a well-developed sense of rhythm and pulse (and division and subdivision), but he also may exhibit conducting gestures that inhibit the sense of “inevitable pulse,” so he may inadvertently detract from rhythmic ensemble.

Back to breathing now.  With non-conducted, small ensembles such as brass quintets and chamber wind ensembles, breathing together is indispensable.  Last Friday, I had the pleasure of auditing a collegiate string quartet rehearsal, and the faculty coach, a friend, persistently invited me to comment, so I eventually did make some suggestions.  (I had dug out scores, so I was following the music and so was able to speak specifically.)  One of my thoughts was that, in a particular section in which the low-string accompaniment had been a trifle disjunct, the musicians could try catching one another’s eyes just before the entrance, breathing together as they begin.  These string players didn’t physically need to breathe together; their instruments can technically be played without breath.  Yet breathing is human and unifying, so breathing together helps human musicians to make sounds together.  When percussionists (typically positioned far at the rear) are having trouble playing together, I will often ask them to breathe on the beat before the entrance—even though they are quite capable, technically speaking, of playing their instruments without regard to the human breath.

Whenever an ensemble is having difficulty beginning a passage together rhythmically, or when it is having trouble keeping accompaniment patterns together, or seems stylistically dis-unified, the conductor might try making it a point to give extra emphasis to an intentional, in-style, visible breath on the beat prior to the entrance, and to an understated, in-time exhalation with the first sound.  In this way, s/he demonstrates visually what the music does sonically (1- predict/inhale and 2- actualize/exhale), and s/he provides a powerful means of bringing an ensemble together stylistically and rhythmically.

Does a pianist or violinist or timpanist need to breathe in order to play?  No, breathing isn’t a physical necessity for these musicians as it is for the flutist or horn player or singer, but breathing can be a visual, very real catalyst to letting the music breathe together.  Breath is a core human experience.

The LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

(Genesis 2:7, Hebrew Names Version)

Other meditational/pedagogical posts on conducting may be found here.

For additional insight on breath and breathing:

(I do not support what I take as the spiritual implications of this page, but some connections with breath and breathing may be helpful.)

http://biblehub.com/hebrew/7307.htm (for the linguistically interested)

http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Names_of_G-d/Spirit_of_God/spirit_of_god.html (ditto)

¹ This nonstandard-yet-ubiquitous use of the noun “ensemble” seems to be adjectival, with a sort of “ghost noun.”  For example, someone might say, “We need to work on our ensemble” or “The ensemble (factor) hasn’t been very convincing today.”  It is not the group/organization that needs bolstering; rather, they need to work on ensemble togetherness, i.e., its rhythmic or stylistic unity/togetherness.  “We need to work on ensemble” really means “We need to work on ensemble unity.”

² On the vocal-choral side, I suppose there is an approximately equal number of sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses who conduct choirs.  Singers obviously need to breathe in order to sing, and choral conductors are generally much better at modeling breathing than instrumental conductors.

I have worked with three bassoonist-conductors who were all well above average, but these are exceptions.  I know of one accordionist and one classical guitarist who have parlayed their music experience into successful professional conducting careers, but these are very unusual exceptions.  It is the rare violist or tubaist or oboist who pursues conducting and excels at it.  More skilled wind band conductors seem to come from the ranks of those trained earlier in trumpet, horn,  and trombone, with a few violinists, clarinetists, and saxophonists thrown in.


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