Berlin moves

I’ve never seen such a crush of classical music personalities, as at the two concerts in New York this week by Dudamel and the Venezuelan youth orchestra. And then came three concerts by the Berlin Philharmonic, which of course has close ties with the Venezuelans. These five concerts together were the hottest classical music ticket in New York, and also meant a lot for the future of the field. I’m reviewing it all for the Wall Street Journal, so here I’ll skip any comments on the musical performances. But as for the future of classical music — on that I’ll have a lot to say.

First Berlin. Then, in another post, Dudamel.

The most astonishing thing about the Berlin players is that they move when they play. You can see the violinists putting their entire bodies into many bow strokes. You see them bend forward, then swing their bodies back. The basses were especially dramatic. The principal bass at Tuesday night’s concert all but spun his instrument during the Mahler Ninth. He just about danced with it. Sometimes the entire section almost danced, each player in his own way. And meanwhile, especially in the Mahler Ninth, the strings produced the biggest, deepest, most powerful and moving sound I think I’ve heard from any orchestra. I hope string players in other orchestras won’t be offended if I say they might as well cut their bows in half, because compared to the Berlin Philharmonic, they don’t seem to be using their entire bows. The Berlin sound was arresting, vivid, totally alive.

The basses could have moved the earth. And of course the strings — and the entire orchestra — could play softly, too. Together the Berlin musicians made Das Lied von der Erde(which I heard last night) sound like chamber music, so transparent, so vital, so wonderfully committed and unanimous.

Are the sound and the movement related? Of course they are. If you put your body into something, you get more power, more freedom, more control. I think everybody knows that. It’s true in sports, it’s true in dance, it’s true in walking down the street. If you hold your body stiffly, you’ll get tired. If you move freely, swinging you arms, if you fee like it, you’ll get a surge of energy. You could see the power of this, in the singers in Das Lied. Thomas Quasthoff swayed when he sang, moving the music with his entire body, not simply with his breath. His sound was supple, fluid, clear, astonishing. Ben Heppner stood there stiffly, and his voice was stiff. Of course you get more freedom when you move.

I know a bodyworker, an accomplished rolfer in New York, who works with dancers and musicians. He says he loves the Berlin Philharmonic. He had no idea that the musicians own the orchestra, that they’re the ones who’re in control. He just sees from the way they hold their instruments, he says, that they love playing more than other orchestras he sees.

So here comes the punch line, a truly brutal one. Classical musicians are taught not to move. I’ve heard that from my Juilliard students. Their teachers tell them not to move when they play. It’s undignified, they’re told, it’s not artistic. And after last night’s Berlin concert, after Das Lied, I ran into a musician I know who plays in one of America’s big orchestras. He was terrifically moved by the concert, and, like me, he’d noticed how the players move. He loved it, and understood, just as I did, how the movement helps the Berlin Philharmonic produce its sound. But at his orchestra, he said, he and his colleagues are forbidden to move.

This rigidity has got to go. We hear that in Berlin, the Philharmonic attracts a younger audience, that there’s excitement at their concerts. And no wonder. It’s not because of marketing, or gimmicks. It’s because they’re exciting to hear, and also to see. You know they care. You know they’re excited by the music. You can see it. Carnegie Hall was electric with their presence, as it was with the young Venezuelans, but never is — just never — with most other orchestras. (From my seat downstairs, I couldn’t see the winds and brass. They may have been — probably were — moving just like the strings, but I couldn’t tell.)


A footnote about some lovely musical details, the kind of thing I’d never have space for in a newspaper review. For Mahler’s Ninth (though not for Das Lied), the two violin sections sat opposite each other, with the violas on the inside. This is standard seating in some orchestras, and it’s always an option, especially powerful in music where the two violin sections are deliberately contrasted. You hear the contrast — or interplay — much more clearly.

But at the end of the Ninth, the seating paid another dividend. On the last page of the score, the violas play — from inside the musical texture — play an important motif, a little turn around A flat. They play it several times. It’s the last thing we hear in the piece, a close that’s anything but final, as if the music, rather than concluding, had simply faded away. And with the violas now sitting on the inside, the sound came not just from the middle of the orchestral texture, but literally from the middle of the orchestra. That made it more evocative. You couldn’t clearly see where it was coming from; it faded from the ear invisibly. And then something equally evocative was done with the solo cello line toward the end of the piece, the one that starts at measure 148 in the score. At measure 156, the line becomes prominent, though it’s marked ppp, as is everything that’s going on just then. The Berlin Philharmonic’s principal cellist, sitting at the front of the section, played it gorgeously, with clarity and quiet radiance (though above all with the inwardness the Germans call “innigkeit”. You could see him clearly.

Then, at measure 161, the score directs the solo cellist to play two notes muted, filling out the harmony otherwise created by the second violins, the violas, and half the rest of the cello section, also muted. But now the principal cellist didn’t play. The solo migrated to a back-stand player, who barely could be seen. This, of course, helped with one technical detail. The principal cellist didn’t have to put his mute on, maybe creating a visual distraction. But the move also helped the cello notes — now far less vital than the line the principal had played — take their place (like the viola turns) in the middle of the texture.

Maybe this is standard practice. Or maybe it’s a Berlin innovation. It’s smart and sensitive, either way.

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  1. aloysiusM says

    I remember a description I read once of an Italian bel Canto singer of the early 1800s. She would bend over almost to the floor to start her roulades and as she moved up the scale she would straighten out. Her contemporary, who left us this description, was disgusted by the spectacle.

    Welcome back vulgarity. Its so nice to see you again.

    Anyone can give examples of musicians who move too much. Of course that 19th century singer was ridiculous. Who was she, by the way? I’ve read a reasonable amount of 19th century operatic history, and I’ve never come across this story.

    So of course we don’t want people who move in ridiculous ways. But that has nothing to do with the Berlin Philharmonic, or with Thomas Quasfthoff, who (as maybe you’ve noticed, Aloysius) is about as far from vulgarity as anyone could be. He moves wonderfully, and so do the Berlin musicians.

    It’s fascinating, though. I say, “Let musicians move,” and somebody jumps in and gives the worst example possible, as if we’d open the floodgates, and in two weeks everyone would be like that totally ridiculous 19th century singer.

    Why would it happen that way? And is being rigid the only alternative to being vulgar?

  2. R. Ebbets says

    What a bizarre piece. I don’t know which orchestras Mr.Sandow meant to reference, but all musicians sometimes move as they play-it’s unavoidable. As for the BPO, I join the many who think the band is significantly less interesting under Rattle than under Abbado. SIr Simon is a terrific self-promoter but has a rather superficial understanding of the repertoire. He’s glib but lacks profundity.

    What a bizarre response.

    For one thing, I quoted a member of a top American orchestra, who told me that he and his colleagues are forbidden to move when they play. Secondly, I mentioned my Juilliard students, who’ve told me that their teachers forbid them to move.

    Obviously, I’m not talking about total immobility. That’s not possible. How can you move your bow over violin strings if you don’t move?

    What other orchestras am I referencing? What other orchestras have I seen? Every major American orchestra, many smaller ones, most of the big European orchestras, some of the smaller ones. Plus student groups. Do you actually want me to do something as silly as type out a list? Would you like it in alphabetical order?

    I don’t recall saying anything about Rattle in my post. I was talking about the musicians in the orchestra. Nor was I talking about whether performances are interesting or not. I was talking about the quality of sound that the orchestra makes. I’m certainly not the only person who’s noticed that, whether we’re talking about people who hear the Berlin Philharmoninc on tour, or in Berlin. Nor am I talking about critics. I’m talking about orchestra professionals.

    Nor am I the only person who noticed how the musicians move. I’ve gone to orchestra concerts for many years, and worked closely with some major orchestras. I’ve never seen musicians move like this. If you’d care to name an orchestra where the musicians move this much, I’d love to hear about it. I can imagine that the Berlin musicians aren’t the only ones who feel free to move. I just haven’t seen it elsewhere.

    Finally, I’ve had long discussions with groups of orchestra musicians on similar topics, and there seems to be a pretty fair consensus, at least in America, on one related thing: That orchestra musicians don’t physically show much involvement with the music they play. Some musicians defend this, and some deplore it, but I haven’t encountered musicians who say, “Oh, we show wild exuberance onstage. Didn’t you notice?”

    I think this and the previous comment show a rather rigid committment to the status quo — to the point, I fear, of not even comprehending what I’ve written.

  3. Jack says

    I was up in the second tier for Mahler 9, and the winds were definitely moving too — most memorably in the very opening of the second movement, when the clarinets launched into the parodistic dance music by puckishly snapping around with it.

    The section of the Lindberg piece with that wild tangle of melodies in the flute section stood out, too — the flutists were throwing a good amount of body language into it. The visual element here really helped make it a memorable highlight of the piece.

    I feel like this isn’t all that unusual for winds, though — I’ve always preferred seats above orchestra level because you can see the winds & percussion, and no orchestra has ever struck me as being overly rigid there.

    I’ve often thought I’m missing something by sitting in the expensive — or, more to the point, for me free — seats. The sound, too, is often better high up.

    But in some cities I’ve visited, I’ve sat in the balcony by choice. When I’m working with an orchestra, it’s a lot easier to get my choice of seats than it is when I’m attending as a critic. And in a selection of cities, I hadn’t noticed the winds moving. But maybe I just haven’t been looking carefully enough. The percussion, more likely. Though I thought the Berlin timpanist had a little more body ooomph than I’m used to seeing. Timpanists are easy to watch from ground-level.

    Thanks for the comment. It’s good to read your view of this.

  4. Stephanie says

    We singers are taught the same thing – no swaying, don’t move your head around. Heaven forbid it look like we’re having fun! A symphony chorus I used to sing in was even told this when we were singing some opera choruses for a light-hearted New Year’s Eve concert. (Almost all were dance numbers, no less!) Um, hello, people MOVE in dance and opera!

    I had a similar discussion with a local university student this morning as we were discussing the decline in popularity of classical music. We both believe that one of the keys to classical music’s survival is to continue dismantling the stereotype of classical concerts – rich, WASP-y patrons who dress up very rigidly to watch a bunch of rigid, sour-faced musicians dressed in formalwear and sit quietly for 2 hours and then quietly go home. As a Gen-Xer I can tell you that won’t attract (and isn’t attracting) most of my peers. And contrary to the opinion of my local classical music critic, my peers don’t need to be “educated” in etiquette so that the art form isn’t “dumbed down.” Whew – don’t EVEN get me started on that!

  5. Marko Velikonja says

    I’ve only seen the BPO once in concert (with Sir Simon) and a few times on television. I love their movement; it doesn’t feel contrived, but it does convey a sense of ownership and involvement that makes the performance very compelling for me.

    I, too, have heard many orchestras over the years, all over the world (though probably fewer than Mr. Sandow), and I’ve never seen or heard anything like the BPO. But the main reaction I had after hearing them was: why can EVERY orchestra give a performance like that? I don’t believe for a minute that there aren’t a dozen orchestras in the U.S. that couldn’t match their technical prowess – not with the competition for orchestra positions that exists today. The difference strikes me of consisting largely of the ambition of the organization, and the involvement shown by the performers – in this case manifested by their movement.

    The only other orchestra where I have sensed a similar level of involvement was the Chicago Symphony. They don’t move like the Berliners, but somehow, besides just their expected exceptional execution, you can feel their sense of professional pride and commitment, which is no less thrilling than watching the BPO.

    Yes! Why can’t every orchestra play like that? Yes, not every orchestra will be on the Berlin Philharmonic’s technical level. And of course orchestras will vary.

    But why don’t more orchestras show so strongly how much they love playing? I think Marco is right. The problem might lie in orchestras’ internal culture. Two American orchestral musicians, Tina Ward of the St. Louis Symphony and Robert Wagner of the New Jersey Symphony, made a long study of orchestras’ internal culture, and came out raving about Berlin. The Berlin Philharmoinic, it seems clear, is an institution that empowers its musicians, and their playing shows it.

  6. Peter says

    It’s possible to move too much. It’s possible to be contrived. The point that Sandow is making is that players in the Berlin Philharmonic show musical involvement as they play. Yes, it’s possible to be just as involved even when one doesn’t move much, but the fact is that great orchestras like Berlin, Vienna, Amsterdam, and other top notch European orchestras move much more and, I believe, are indeed much more involved in the music than most of the American orchestras.

    You don’t have to believe me when I write any of this, of course. However, as a professional musician who know many people in big orchestras, I know the attitudes and playing styles of many of these orchestras well. I’m sad to come to this conclusion, but it’s true.

    I truely believe that most of the big orchestras in America are superior in their technical abilities than even the best of the European orchestras that I’ve mentioned. It’s the musical expression that they manage to convey on a daily basis that make the difference. How much does this have to do with whether the musicians move a lot or not? I can’t say that this is the only difference, but then I think it has a lot more to do with it than many of the American orchestras would admit.

    In sum, it’s not “should we move more, or not.” The question is “how much personal involvement is there when you perform,” and I think the answer is that, while it’s not the only evidence, but it shows a lot.

  7. Gerontius says

    Greg is 100% right in his remarks. The Berliners do move (they did under Karajan too I remember) – I ws just at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, they move too, the winds even more so.

    I grew up in the UK and was shocked when I came to Philly in the 80s and saw Murray Panitz et al just “Sit and Play”. The European wind players lean into one another, they lean and weave as they play. British wind players do too – Galway did when he was in the BPO. The strings move more in Europe too.

    I don’t know who inssted in the US on “sit and play” but you see it in the CSO telecasts too………..

  8. says

    From Dan Levitin’s book:

    “New studies by Marcelo Wanderley of McGill, and by…Bradley Vines have shown that nonmusician listeners are exquisitely sensitive to the physical gestures that musicians make. By watching a musical performance with the sound turned off, and attending to things like the musician’s arm, shoulder, and torso movements, ordinary listeners can detect a great deal of the expressive intentions of the musician. Add in the sound, and an emergent quality appears — an understanding of the musician’s expressive intentions that goes beyond what was available in the sound or the visual image alone.”

    Dan Levitin, “This is Your Brain on Music, p. 210)

    There have been a few recent studies like this in the music psychology publications, and an increasing interest in motion capture as a result.

    Thanks, Eric. I thought of you when I wrote this post. Figured you’d know something we needed to hear about.

    At tonight’s Berlin Philharmonic concert, I was sleepy, and suddenly the nickel dropped. I could move to the music myself! That made it much easier to follow what was going on. And it took me all these years to learn that….

  9. margaret says

    Great post!

    Our orchestra, the Jacksonville Symphony, has just been locked out this week, but, emotionally, it has been locked out for the past 10-20 years by conductors who are rigid in their interpretations, as well as their demand for stillness while playing.

    Perhaps, that is one of the ingredients in the rigidity of its Board which hasn’t a clue about how an orchestra functions, its musicians practice and study, or the meaning of an orchestra, in general. They think they can run it like a corporation, fire the “unnecessary” players, pay less for players who play more than one instrument, and perpetuate a philosophy which makes for an unhappy organization. Is that a formula for making music?

    Thanks, Margaret. I read yesterday about the Jacksonville lockout. Very sad, very ugly. I think there’s a lot of rigidity in this business, and inevitably it gets into the way the music is played. But not always, as Berlin and plenty of other examples show. Just about any orchestra — any decent professional orchestra — can turn into something electric when the musicians are inspired.

    Sometimes I wonder why musicians don’t confront management with the most radical demand — help us create the environment where we can play our very best.

    I wish you lots of luck with the bitter dispute. Not a good time for Jacksonville musicians.

  10. Bill Johnston says


    Two comments to add to your praise of movement and the unleashing of symphonic musicians. I’ve wondered why orchestras must always wear black penguin suits. Movement seems harder in stiff formal attire. It’s possible to look musical without looking like butlers or maids. Second, why can’t the brass rise to the occasion — I mean physically stand up — when they play a climax and want to project it with additional force. For that matter, why can’t other members of the orchestra join the percussionists and stand? It’s harder to move when seated. Soloists stand. Why not the have the normally seated parts of the orchestra stand when the music calls for that accent? I recall reading that when Zubin Mehta had the L.A. Philharmonic record in Royce Hall at UCLA, he’d have the strings stand in order to enhance their projection and get them more physically into the music.

    Thanks for this, Bill. Of course you’ve opened a can of quite wonderful worms. (Don’t think that metaphor quite came out right!) If we start thinking of ways that orchestras could be looser, more flexible, more personal, more expressive, we’d end up with a long list. The problem then becomes who’s going to act on these things. It’s strange, but orchestras don’t have anyone with the power to start this discussion. If management did, the musicians would object. If the board did, one group of musicians told me they’d treat it as a contract violation! Which leaves the musicians as the only group that can take the lead here, and they as a rule aren’t organized to take leadership on substantial issues. There may be exceptions, which I’d love to know about. But I was once part of a discussion of these issues with musicians from several orchestras, and what I’ve just said was pretty much the consensus.

    I think there’s fairly wide agreement on ending formal dress. Which then makes me wonder why it doesn’t happen. By now, I’m sure many of us have seen orchestras dress less formally, and the effect is wonderful. I remember seeing the Brooklyn Philharmonic, with everyone wearing black below the waist (pants or skirt), and solid colors above. It looked wonderfully festive. Or the Northern Sinfonia, in Newcastle, in Britain, wearing crisp black, the men without jackets or ties. I remember sitting at the concert next to the man who ran the terrific concert hall, and asking him if the orchestra always dressed that way. “Yes,” he said, quite obviously proud of how they looked. “The Queen was here last month, and they dressed like this even for her.”

    I’m guessing that the biggest obstacle to changing the dress code, in the US, is the difficulty musicians and management would have in agreeing on what an alternate way of dressing should be. Obviously the musicians can’t just wear anything, at least in a large orchestra, playing for the normal classical audience. The effect could be chaotic, and wouldn’t make a good impression on the people who buy tickets.

    But then who decides what the alternative should be? That would become yet another thing for musicians and management to fight about, and I can see that both parties — management especially — might shy away from it. The musicians wouldn’t want management to tell them what to wear. But I do think the problem could be solved, after much negotiation, just as new recording rules have been negotiated.

    I’ve seen the brass stand up, by the way, at least once, at the end of the Mahler First, when the Pittsburgh Symphony played it under Mariss Jansons. Or maybe that was just the horns. My memory isn’t clear. Mahler often asks the wind players to point the bells of their instruments upward, to make the sound more vibrant. And in Cuba I saw an string ensemble, nine women who played standing up, from memory. That was sensational, and I’m sure that both standing up and memorizing the muisc helped them play with more spirit.

  11. says

    As a Feldenkrais practitioner who studies how movement works for athletes, artists, and regular folks all day every day, I found a great deal to relate to in your post. I was particularly struck by a detail you mentioned — that string players who don’t move as much as the Berlin players don’t sound like they’re using their whole bows. This is a mechanical fact, actually. Any movement you do with your feet rooted to the ground is an arc, a portion of a circle. The less of your body you move to do it, the smaller the circle — in other words, the shorter and sharper the arc. So if you barely move your body, it’s only possible to make a small movement with a bow, with pressure increasing and control diminishing almost as soon as you leave the middle.

    It goes like this: if you move just your wrist, you make a very small movement indeed; if you move your elbow it’s larger, if you move your shoulder joint, it’s larger still; and it continues to grow progressively in size when you add in the shoulder girdle, and then the thorax (rotating in the lower thoracic vertebrae — this would require moving your head as well). When you get to the point that you’re moving your pelvis as well, you’ve got a long, smooth arc (from a very large circle) with even pressure and good control till the very end. In other words, you really are using more bow, with good sound quality throughout.

    You also have significantly less tension, because the movement is distributed across so many joints and muscles that you don’t quickly fatigue. Sound quality and expressiveness are much better.

    So there’s nothing gratuitously showboating about expressive involvement of the whole body when playing an instrument. It’s not external to the process of playing — it’s essential. The more free the musician is to respond with the whole body to the demands of the music, the better the playing.

    Thanks so much, Jae. (And hi.) You put into words things I can’t possibly say. I know that they’re true ,instinctively, and so others, I think. But we’re not able to say why it’s all true.

    These things apply in sports as well, pretty obviouslly. A batter in baseball doesn’t swing with just his arms. You have to put your whole body behind the swing. Likewise pitchers. That’s what the windup is about. It helps to mobilize your body. Anybody can experiment with this, simply by using all of the body in walking down the street. It makes a big difference. Though you could explain it better than I can!

  12. says

    Being a professional bassoonist, I find this thread interesting. I think the main point is for musicians to be thoroughly involved in their music-making. I think it’s frankly beside the point, whether one moves a lot or not – the point being, that one should move or not move according to one’s expression of musical phrasing. There have been some musicians of the past that I simply could not watch perform – so much movement, distracting totally from the sounds coming out of the piano or cello, or whatever instrument. When I shut my eyes, I could enjoy the performance, without the distraction of all the gymnastics going on. For a wind player, lots of movement can sometimes get in the way – intonation can suffer, etc. Rigidity does no performer any service, but it seems to me the healthy approach would be to balance one’s performance with enough movement to not feel tense or rigid while expressing a musical line. This is of course assuming that one’s being sincere in the performance, and not just trying to make a show for the glory of the performer, rather than the glory of the music being played. My 2 cents!

    Your two cents are worth at least a dime — no, just kidding. They’re quite seriously valuable. Thanks. Obviously it would be wrong to value movement for movement’s sake. It’s very possible to move too much. And there’s no point in moving if your instrument gets in the way, or if you don’t feel like it. The feeling of freedom — the reality of freedom — is the most important thing. So I should add a further point to my Berlin Philharmonic reflections. What impressed me was the freedom and involvement the players showed, which was demonstrated by the way they moved, taken as a group. They didn’t all move. But most crucially, they didn’t all move the same way, even within any one section. The most wonderful moment (to repeat something I said in my post) was when the basses all moved differently as they played a big phrase. That showed me how involved the players were as individuals.

    Now we seem to have a situation in which there’s a frequent sense that classical musicians shouldn’t move, or shouldn’t move much. Players, both as students and professionals, can be discouraged from doing it. What if they were encouraged, and there would only be complaints if someone’s movements were clearly inappropriate?

  13. gkb says

    With the possible exception of a suit of armor, the tuxedo is the least comfortable attire in which to play (for one) the cello. It’s like having straitjacket straps around your shoulders. Why do musicians tolerate it? Even community orchestras, playing Peer Gynt in a high-school gym, wear the penguin suits. Baffling.

    As for standing up: I remember one concert in which the trumpets had a brief crescendo passage leading to a climax. They stood up slowly DURING the crescendo, letting the music soar over everyone’s head. It was electrifying. Wish I could remember the ensemble or the piece. It may have been a college band concert.

  14. says


    Interesting post.Man, do I wish I could have been in Carnegie for those concerts!

    Playing the Mahler Ninth a couple of years ago was a peak musical experience for me. I can only imagine how beautifully the BPO performed.

    Several years ago we had the Prague Woodwind Quintet here for a couple of recitals and master class. The flutist was adamant about getting the kids freed up and moving. He said that Americans sat like statues and were afraid to move.

    One of my friends studied violin at Yale and I recall his teacher, a prominent orchestra concertmaster, referring disdainfully to the sort of movement you have described as “gesticulation.” I fear that great players who transmit those attitudes to students can cause a paralysis of the performer.

    Henry Schuman had a good way of approaching movement with students. His idea was that movement was fine as long as you were conscious of it. If you have your leg wrapped around the leg of the chair and you are not aware of it, you are letting the movement interfere with your performance. If you lean forward as you are intensifying a phrase and you are aware of what you are doing it is not problem, but simply part of your expression.

    Thanks so much, Dave. This is a fine contribution to our discussion.

    I especially liked your distinction between movements that seem appropriate, and movements that don’t. Everything I saw from the Berlin musicians was what you describe at the end — movement that comes naturally from the way they’re playing the music. The violinists bent forward, as they intensified a phrase. That was exactly what happened, and because the movement seemed so natural — and was so rooted in the music — it only made the concert stronger.

  15. AC says

    natural movements in playing is important-but the emphasis has to be on the “natural”. anything done only to engage has no place in music-making. everyone naturally engages other people in different ways. certain people engages a particular person more but not so much with someone else. in the same way that we don’t completely change who we are for different people, movements while playing should come from the same natural place.

    i’ve often heard people who support not moving much while playing cite heifetz as an example of why one is not supposed to move, and those with the opposing view cite other masters as examples of why one should move. but everyone has a different way of using their body. how could there be only one way to play? people all walk differently, too.

    i believe that movement in playing consists of:

    1) having a centered balance at all times, so that the body remains tension-free but strong – which, in playing any instrument, can be a very complex overlapping of different systems of balance. as one needs to remain so flexible that adjustments can be made in a flash-between every single note when playing fast. or, for example, during a long, slow note of a bow drawing up or down through each micro-second. the body needs to remain constantly open to flux at all times.

    2) the musician’s ability to physically and emotionally feel the gesture of a given musical motif, phrase, or a mood, a feeling. (with perhaps the emotional leading the way.) that in extension creates a sense of rhythm. i believe that classical musicians’ overwhelming addiction and dependence on the metronome, for example, is partly due to a lack of knowing how to feel musical pulse in the body. some classical musicians (especially orchestral) tend to overlook notes that are “technically easy”, like long notes, “boring” and “easy” passages, etc.. they neither play them with care nor enjoy them…

    3) having the knowledge of the ergonomics in the playing of their particular instrument. this is where a lot of the different “schools of technique” fall short. students are taught uniformly to have a lower shoulder, higher elbow, etc… lower or higher to what? we all have different physiques, different strength and weakness in our muscles, different alignments in our body. how could the arm ALWAYS form a 90 degree angle, or the violin always be at a 45 degree angle to the neck? everyone walks differently as well. some do walk more gracefully than others. but simply lifting one’s feet or head higher may not be what’s right for that person’s physique. the goal is to find a way that makes the walk as effortless as possible. and that is different for everyone. why should playing an instrument be any different? because “technique” is complicated? no. technique itself is simple. but like anything else in life, simplicity is difficult. it is the player’s journey to cut through the obstacles to try to find it. it makes no sense to add on complications to something that’s simple, but already complex. the whole idea of what “technique” is, as many classical musicians know it, only adds clutter to the already difficult task. a process of stripping down becomes a process of adding on. and we’re only talking about the physical know-how here, without even touching the music and the art itself. how much more complicated do we want music-making to be?

    i feel this is what modern education encourages across the board. (for instance, outside of the music world, how many of us have come across doctors who simply recite back medical texts to patients without seeming to understand that they need to incorporate what they know into our individuality?) education and training has become something of a process of creating more complications by adding on pieces of information, while losing sight of the “truth” and rendering the information obtained irrelevant. therefore, sometimes the more “learned” a person is, the more he/she is blinded, the farther away he/she truly knows. the idea of “expertise” becomes poison.

    which brings me to another point. so often violinists explore violin music, cellists zoom in on how to make things work on the cello alone. but just like exploring one seemingly simple thing of movement in playing, one’s vision is expanded manyfold by learning what good dancers do with their bodies when they react to music; what good actors do to create honest, powerful theatrics… etc. etc. etc… all this is part of learning how to play an instrument. where’s the understanding and emphasis of this real (self-) education?

    in order to move truthfully, gracefully, with an instrument, it is a lot more than “just do it”. each truthful gesture carries the weight of an understanding of the music itself that comes from thorough working and thinking; the understanding of one’s craft of playing the instrument itself; the awareness of one’s own body; the abandoning of one’s self to surrender to an instinct, a feeling, or imagination. behind each truthful gesture lies an infinite number of inspirations that we can’t name or even are aware of, but that which are readily available everywhere for us to seek out – in other art forms, in our everyday lives. a musician needs to recognize the seriousness that each gesture embodies. that seriousness is what elevates a craft to an art. it does not weigh down, it lifts. it procures joy. it creates fullness and totality in every gesture, every moment. the same seriousness creates the humility to embrace all the possibilities of what awaits to be explored, and then explored further, always. as after all, the rich pool of inspiration lies infinite ahead of us still. what is mundane today can be an epiphany tomorrow. this seriousness can be exciting, light-hearted, or frustrating and painful. at the same time, that music-making and our human ability to be moved by music is the most simple, natural instinct. to recognize the serious and the natural simultaneously is necessary in making a musician. without it, even a most simple gesture while playing can become superfluous, detached, dishonest, thus meaningless.

    Thanks so much, AC. Your comments are a wonderful gift to all of us reading them.

  16. says


    I am a little late in joining the others to comment on this post, but I wanted to throw out there that I played with the New York Youth Symphony in 2003 under Paul Haas and remember that we were encouraged to move, and that we all did move a great deal and very organically. In fact, as a cellist, it was a real turning point for me. When I first started playing with the orchestra I felt that I was stiff compared to the rest of the section, and gradually I found myself moving naturally with everyone else, which definitely enhanced section unity and raised the level of excitement in our playing. Maybe this is more the case in pre-conservatory/pre-professional playing. I haven’t played in a better orchestra since then and have found that now I tend to be “the mover” in whatever cello section I find myself in, though this has never been looked down upon. In chamber music I think it is quite different, because movement becomes more practical for staying together! My chamber music coach at Colgate University was also a Feldenkrais practitioner and always tried to get players to loosen up. Should one move only because they are told to? No, but as David Harrington said at a Chamber Music America event last year to one young quartet, “Flirt with the audience…play like you’re flashing gold teeth.” This is what the audience wants (or at least what I want) and it inevitably involves the performer expressing passion physically not just musically.

    Thanks, Brian. II met Paul Haas some years ago, and as I’ve followed his career, I’ve thought that he and I must think similiarly about a lot of things.