It is always inspiring to reconnect with one’s craft, as I have the opportunity to do by observing the teaching of my mentors Oleg Proskurnya and Leonid Korchmar at the conducting workshop at West Virginia State in Charleston, June 18-23.
The principles of physics affect all forms of music making, but they are particularly visible in conducting, as are principles of anatomy and good body usage. Some people are natural at relaxed, expressive use of their bodies and at conveying a sense of fluidity and sonority, while for others this is much more of a challenge. The basic challenge is our tendency always to accumulate tension and never relax. Oleg Proskurnya uses certain basic mantras – to ‘relax on the way down,’ meaning as the arm is moving down. This is essential in order to keep an open physical and mental channel for for musical communication, which is blocked by tension. Oleg also teaches the concept of ‘taking the sound from below’ – that is, pulling the sound from an imaginary region or field of sound directly in front of you – the ‘zvukovaya linea.’ So the the beat actually comes on the way up or out, rather than down. He emphasizes the importance of instant relaxation after giving the impulse of the beat, and of controlling the rebound from the beat.
The next principle continually stressed is the importance of focusing one’s gestures. Clarity is paramount especially in upbeats, and this requires precision, energy, and compact focus. A conductor is responsible for maintaining and showing the structure of the pulse and the meter – the subdivision and the organization of beats. Another key element is to lead the ensemble you have to be mentally and physically slightly ahead of them. Leonid describes this as swimming upstream against the current; if you ever relax this sense of swimming against the current of time, in that moment you abdicate your responsibility to lead the ensemble and will fall behind. You cannot wait for the sound you are leading.
Leonid emphasizes the importance of developing elasticity and suppleness in one’s technique. His phrase ‘heavy hands’ (or Oleg’s speaking of feeling weight in the arm) and thinking deeper in relation to one’s body is an effective solution to this problem of tension, and the musical result is to evoke a fuller, richer sound from the musicians one is leading.
The above principles are all basics. Over the years both teachers have conveyed to me a deeper sense of a more sophisticated and subtle system that comprises real conducting. Oleg elegantly describes a model of two-way communication system between conductor and musicians, how the conductor continually adjusts to the sound as it is actually coming at her. And Leonid is brilliant in describing how to use the body to produce and transmit dynamic, elastic energy. In essence, we use our musculature at various levels (the arm, the hand, just the fingers, or the entire body) to turn ourselves into a spring which can generate this energy.
Most fundamentally, the energy of conducting comes from the body’s center, and that energy needs to go from our abdominal center directly into our hands. And the mind controls the hands remotely, but is not part of the path the energy travels into the hands. It is essential to develop a finer sense of energy in one’s hands, to become sensitive to subtle currents and fields of energy, such as the ones we are emitting all the time. A conductor has to be tuned into this if we are to have a technique that is vital and communicative.
Leonid offered a background context for the art of conducting – that we come from the ‘first explosion’ of the universe, and from billions of years of animal evolution. We have to use that elemental, ‘animal’ energy – once awakened, it must be tamed or channeled correctly. To stay in touch with our animal nature and with the essential energy of the universe is fundamental to our creativity and our art.
As a student of Craft, what is so wonderful to me is that the challenge of mastering and applying all of these elements to support one’s artistry and musical leadership is endless. This path challenges the whole person – not just the physical or the mental or the artistic, but also the psychological and the spiritual. For someone who is compelled to keep growing and to become more masterful in Craft and in inhabiting one’s human body, the multidimensional disciplines of music offer this path for growth and for understanding oneself in relation to others and to one’s environment. The goal of art – to express and to communicate – and the goal of the human soul – to keep growing forever – are thus deeply intertwined and mutually reinforcing.