Let me just say straight out that I don’t think it is possible to understand, appreciate, or be “moved” by a musical work unless one moves. The physical body is expert in understanding the beats, rhythms, and spatial placements that make up music. Because I believe this, I find it interesting that so few symphony musicians move while playing in the orchestra, but are much more apt to move while playing a concerto, sonata, or even in a chamber ensemble. Why is that? Today, I will explore this observation.
This whole issue is a matter of how music is interpreted and who interprets music in a symphony orchestra compared to a chamber ensemble or soloist.There is a dynamic in a symphony orchestra that does not exist when playing solo or chamber music. Though every musician in a symphony orchestra is an exemplary musician, each one cedes the function of interpreting to a conductor. The conductor’s primary function is to interpret the music the orchestra is playing. He is in an excellent position to do this, because he or she is standing, moving, and has plenty of open space around him. We don’t (usually) hear music emanate from a conductor, but we see what the music sounds like, conveyed through movements. The musicians see this too, and what they see the conductor doing governs how they play the music. The interpretation does not originate with the people playing the music; the musicians ascertain the interpretation and transfer it from what they see to what they do. Because they are agents through which the conductor’s interpretation is conveyed, there is little need for them to understand and interpret the music the way the conductor does, so there is correspondingly little reason for them to move while they play.
Contrast this with how a solo or chamber music is interpreted. In these cases, there is no conductor. There may be a leader of a chamber ensemble, but even so, the process by which an interpretation is reached is typically more democratic and collaborative; there are discussions and explorations of different interpretations, and discussions on how a passage may go. It is also possible, because of the small number of musicians involved, for the players to respond musically to each other, playing off of each other’s decisions on phrasing and nuance, so that the interpretation evolves out of an organic process that may never reach a final resting point, as these interpretive interactions continue right through a performance and on to another. Because chamber musicians are true interpreters, and not only conveyors of someone else’s interpretation, they move while they play.The movement not only helps each musician understand and make an interpretation, but it also helps unify the performance. A nod from all together communicates that a certain stress is to be placed at the next beat, much as a conductor would prepare such a moment. Movement in unison among the players is way of sharing in an interpretation beyond the sounds, as each one’s body transmits and receives emotional information that helps make an emotional response to what is being played, and build the emotional expression that will follow.
In addition, there are also a different kind of motions that musicians make as they perform. I am thinking of the executive movements required for physically playing an instrument. Not only does the flowing extending and collecting of a right arm guide a bow along a violinist’s string to produce an expressive tone, it also sends the sensation of beauty and legato through the players body. The elegant and gentle placement of a clarinetists fingers on the keys and tone holes, or the finessed striking of a timpani by a skilled timpanist do the same. It is at once choreography and utility, music in motion and body parts in motion dedicated to making and expressing that musical motion. All of this applies equally to the soloist, who stands in front of a piano or orchestra, free to move and interpret as a conductor, but with the added advantage of being the sound source. The soloist and conductor will frequently exchange glances, facial expressions, movements and gestures, all of which are expressive and informative to the other. By such means, the two interpreters meld together as one. So it is too with soloist and accompanist, though a pianist is restricted in movement to the head, shoulders, arms and hands. Still, how expressive is the force with which a powerful chord is produced, or the elegance with which a melody or accompanying arpeggio is coaxed out of the piano. All of this motion is inseparable from the priceless result, which is the making of great music.