On the Body Language of Conductors


A recent article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette highlights an interesting, but rarely discussed, part of the classical music performance: the body language of the conductor, and how they use it to control the sound of the orchestra.

Just as actors and dancers are experts in communicating with their anatomy, orchestra conductors also extensively train in nonverbal communication, as their primary role is to beat time and use their bodies to direct emotional intensity and nuance during a performance.

At the root level, some cues have obvious meanings. When Manfred Honeck, music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, sets his feet wide, furrows his brow and flings his arms out, this essentially boils down to “play louder.” But to a trumpet player, his meaning might be as nuanced as “play this as though you’re standing alone on a precipice yowling into an infinite void.” His smoother, smaller movements generally imply softer melodies and phrases but might suggest to a violinist playing with a sound no louder than the pattering of a mouse’s footsteps.

A body language and communication expert walks you through how the smallest, and largest, motions can change any interaction, especially when it comes to making music on stage with so many dozens of professional musicians. They even discuss the body language of Leonard Bernstein from a performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 (4th movement). Check it out!


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