Posts Tagged ‘body language’


Photo: Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette
When Manfred Honeck, music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, sets his feet wide, furrows his brow and flings his arms out, it essentially means “play louder.” But there are nuances.

Have you ever wondered what messages the gestures of conductors are meant to convey — or whether the orchestra players understand them? What about last-minute substitute conductors? Do they change their style to be readable by musicians who have never worked with them  — and how difficult would that be for conductors trying to concentrate on a piece they hadn’t expected to play that night?

Jeremy Reynolds writes at the Post-Gazette, “When talking to a body language expert, the mere dilating of pupils can reveal the difference between truth and a bald-faced lie. Facial expression, hand gestures and eye contact all carry similar significance.

“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.

“ ‘I have to be the music for every moment, every gesture, every bit of eye contact,’ Mr. Honeck said in a telephone interview from Paris. ‘If I conduct a piece, I fill it in with character, the meaning of the music.

 ‘It takes me weeks to find the right gesture for the right music.’

“In Pittsburgh, Lauren Tan, 28, is a certified body language expert. [She’s] reviewed surveillance footage for court cases and works with businesspeople looking for that nonverbal deal-closing edge. … For this article, she reviewed footage of several conductors including Mr. Honeck, the famous Leonard Bernstein, Venezuela’s Gustavo Dudamel and others to assess their movements and nonverbal cues.

“ ‘The first thing you notice is somebody’s hands,’ Ms. Tan said. “People will say that they notice the eyes first, but that’s not true. … Keeping your hands visible is typically a great cue for meeting people and introductions.’ …

“When Mr. Honeck began conducting, she zeroed in on moments when he leaned toward the musicians. ‘I tell businessmen this, it’s a good way to indicate agreement and say, “Hey, I’m on your side.” When Honeck does this, it’s about giving the music more feeling.’

“So are all of these cues practiced and polished? Mr. Honeck says no.

“ ‘You can train and rehearse things, but in the moment of making music, things are spontaneous, you can’t calculate and you have to see how you feel with your body,’ he said. …

“Watching footage of Bernstein, Ms. Tan noted that he consistently nodded to his musicians, which functions both as a cue but also as a sign of approval, an encouraging gesture that builds conscious and subconscious rapport. She said that the audience will pick up on such movements as a sign of mutual respect and positivity …

“While the audience can’t see a conductor’s face, Ms. Tan said that from the videos she could see conductors using different facial micro expressions to project certain emotional qualities for the musicians. There are seven such expressions: happiness, surprise, anger, fear, disgust, contempt and sadness. Sadness is the hardest to mimic, while contempt is most often mistaken. …

“Mr. Honeck has spent years training his hands to move in certain ways to cue musicians for specific kinds of sounds, and he said that the right gesture will be effective no matter which orchestra he is conducting.

“ ‘I train with my hands not because of technical things but because I want to have a special sound,’ he said. ‘If I move in a different way, I get a different and better sound. That’s what counts. The sound must be right.’ ”

More at the Post-Gazette, here.

The famously emotional conductor Arturo Toscanini conducts Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” (circa 1937).

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You already know that certain gestures mean different things in different languages. It can get confusing. Now there’s a dictionary to help you out, François Caradec’s Dictionary of Gestures.

At the Times Literary Supplement, Thea Lenarduzzi writes, “Caradec’s Dictionary, newly translated into English by Chris Clarke, lists some 850 gestures that ‘successively address each part of the body, from top to bottom, from scalp to toe by way of the upper limbs’, and may be used as well as or instead of speech. They are numbered and ordered in a taxonomy running from 1.01 (‘to nod one’s head vertically up and down, back to front, one or several times: acquiescence’) to 37.12 (‘to kick an adversary in the rear end: aggression’), and accompanied by Philippe Cousin’s illustrations.  The majority of them are what the psychologist David McNeill has called ‘imagistic’, by which parts of the body are arranged to figure an imagined object or action. …

“Adam Kendon calls [this type of non-verbal expression] ‘visible action as utterance’ in his seminal Gesture (2004) – as a sub-category of body language more broadly, which comprises both conscious (that is, learnt) and unconscious (instinctive) movements.

“As social anthropologists have shown, though, the line between the two is sometimes fuzzy – learnt behaviour can become automatic, as a number of Caradec’s entries confirm. For example: grasping one’s throat when choking (which the American Red Cross lists as the universal gesture for choking); gritting one’s teeth (‘Vigor. Resistance.’); or yawning, hand in front of the mouth (‘bored’). We are in the realm of gesture when the movement is a deliberately crafted expression (note the Latin root, gerere, to bear or wear, which suggests that a gesture is ‘put on’, like a costume); otherwise, where the mind has wandered, body language may betray feelings you had not intended to make public. There can also be a question about sincerity. An action executed for show, in the knowledge that it will not translate to anything concrete – a politician, say, fraternizing with factory workers – is ‘merely a gesture’. …

“While certain aspects of body language may indeed overcome language barriers, the same cannot be said for many of the gestures Caradec catalogues. One culture’s gesture for something may resemble another culture’s gesture for something else: an Italian might bring her fingertips together and repeatedly move the wrist backwards and forwards to ask her interlocutor, informally, what, precisely, he thinks he is doing/saying/looking at. Do this in a busy bar in Leeds, though, and it is likely to communicate another matter entirely.” More here.

I’m thinking that fiction writers who use characters from different cultures would be wise to study this book to get the gestures right.



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