Going beyond the notes: Conducting with Expression

Want to go from being a human metronome to embodying all the emotions in the music? We need to know the music, and know ourselves.

We all know that music has something to say beyond just dots on the page. We're in this game because music moved us in some way. Yet it can be incredibly challenging to show this in our bodies when we're up in front of a large group of musicians, whether they're middle-schoolers or professionals.

In my own practice, I've found there are three fundamental issues that block us from being as expressive as we would like.

"I don't know what the music is expressing"...or... "I don't have anything to say"

Almost always, and I count myself here, this actually means "I don't know the music well enough yet".

This is a signal we need to get down and spend some quality time with the music doing score study - reading the score over and over again (preferably without being contaminated by listening to a recording).

How do you do it without a recording if your inner hearing isn't that developed yet? Well you need to find ways to actually hear and feel the substance of the music!

If you're struggling to connect on an expressive level some great ways 'in' are:

  • Playing any and all parts of the music on your 'native' instrument If YOU were playing this melody how would you play it? What does it communicate to you? What do you think the composer is trying to say?

  • Singing any and all parts of the music even (especially) if you don't think you're a 'singer' Something about singing can unlock more possibilities and ideas.

  • Listening to a recording without the score How do you hear the music differently without looking at the page? What images, words or feelings come to mind?

  • Moving (interpretive dance, acting) with or without a recording If this piece were danced or acted how would the performers stand, move and interact? How many dancers/actors would there be? What's the story?

  • Playing or singing it WRONG What if you deliberately change something to NOT what the composer wrote (the dynamic, an articulation, tempo, mode)? How does this change the feeling? Does this give you more insight into the composer's choices and narrow down how it feels?

When I look back on this list I note that all these are about embodying the music in order to understand what's going on emotionally. That can be really hard for lots of us.

(If this interests you, there's a great conversation with violist turned psychotherapist Anna Schaum on how many musicians only play 'from the neck up', and my personal response to that conversation).

Really struggling? Find the list above more horrifying than jumping out of a plane? Aside from doing some serious therapy (recommend!) a starting point to connecting to your emotions could be using the Feeling Wheel to help you identify emotions in the music and writing it on your scores. However the real challenge is then standing alone and working out how to project that in your body...

"I don't know how to express the music with my body"

So you feel like you know the piece but it's just not coming out of you that way? When I coach conductors people generally need one of two things: editing or amplification.

Those who need editing need to do less. The expression is there, but it's shrouded in unnecessary movement. If this is you, your mantra needs to be "Invest in what changes, not what stays the same". What stays the same for lots of the time? The beat. Minimising beating motion, and investing more intention in showing changes in dynamics, phrasing, character and energy will help clarify your movements.

Those who need amplification often need to do more. The expression may be there, but it's often inhibited by fear. Common fears that get in the way are: looking silly, worrying what others think, being over the top, impostor syndrome or feeling incompetent. If this is you, then your first step is to get comfortable doing this alone, undisturbed by yourself. Work on going completely over the top. My teacher used to talk about "Turning up the musical thermostat to white hot", as opposed to lukewarm.

Of course, we all fall into both of these categories, often simultaneously. However, they're useful paradigms for analysing what we need to do to get the message across more clearly.

"I thought I was doing it, but..."

Regardless of whether you need to amplify or edit, we all need to increase our sensitivity to what our body is doing and how that looks to others.

We've all had the experience of watching ourselves on video or in the mirror and thinking "Oh, I felt I was conducting huge/tiny/expressively/in time...but when I look at it it's not what I thought". So we have to work to hone our perception of 'feels like' in relation to 'looks like'.

This only comes through the uncomfortable experience of watching yourself a lot, both in the mirror and in recordings.

In the mirror is a good starting point, and some people find this less confronting. You can adjust your movements on the fly, but you're more likely to focus on what you see at the expense of connecting to what you feel.

Recordings have the benefit of allowing you to completely concentrate on your musical intent and how that feels in your body, then watching back to see how it looked. The downside is you don't get the immediacy of the mirror. These days it's so easy with phones and Zoom.

Even if you only have 5 minutes to spare, hit record and start conducting. Even if its only a few bars it's so quick to watch it back, make an adjustment and go again.

Your homework: The 5 in 5 Challenge

You can make some HUGE improvements in your expression and sensitivity in just 5 minutes. Extrapolate that out to doing it a few times a week and you'll be a drastically different conductor in a short period of time.

Introducing the 5-in-5 challenge: Five repetitions of a short passage in 5 minutes with recording, evaluation.

  1. Choose a very short passage of music (<20 seconds) you'd like to be more expressive
  2. Set a timer for 5 minutes
  3. Record yourself conducting the passage
  4. Stop and watch it back, decide what you want to change
  5. Repeat steps 3-4 four more times

Want to really see your improvement? Compare the first and last videos.

Exponentially improve your work by making this 5x5x5: Do your 5-minute block 5 times in a week. You'll be shocked at how much a small, deliberate amount of practice can pay off.


Want to be more expressive:

  • Make sure you deeply know the music and have it in your body
  • Do your best to let go of extraneous gestures and hang-ups that prevent you from going for it
  • Hone your perception of how something feels vs. how it looks to the ensemble by watching yourself

This is the first in a series of posts related to our 2022 Calendar which features monthly topics to challenge and inspire you to grow your capacity. If you haven't got yours (it's FREE!), get it here.

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Going beyond the notes: Conducting with Expression

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