Poison and Pedagogy – revisiting the purpose of movement in music education

Music in Early Childhood class in Merida, Vz

Straight from the “you can’t make this up” file comes recent research suggesting that the consequences of cosmetic treatments of Botox (Botulinim Toxin) may be more than a frozen face, but also a frozen heart.

A study from Columbia University revealed that individuals who receive facial Botox injections don’t just have trouble expressing emotions outwardly, their ability to experience them inwardly is diminished as well. There’s a fundamental biological connection between external physicality and internal feeling, and what’s more, the relationship isn’t unidirectional. Further research into embodied cognition seems to indicate that thought or emotion motivates physiological response – to the extent of affecting even how we sit in a chair – as much as the inverse.

(You’d think I would have figured this out earlier, being a conductor. Perhaps this should be added to that long list of things that we only understand intuitively or implicitly at first, rather than explicitly.)

So the lesson from the world of plastic surgery might be that the churning of the sea of string players in a Venezuelan orchestra is as much a catalyst for the musicians’ passion as it a reaction to it. Yes, it’s choreographed, and it may also serve a cultural function, but the training and subsequent propensity of Sistema musicians to dance in -and out of- their chairs is looking more like great pedagogical insight rather than theatrical insincerity.

The insight goes far beyond the creation and transmission of emotion in performance. Third citation alert: there’s yet more research to suggest that the mere act of a group synchronizing its movements effects some degree of social bonding. (Interesting sidenote: the study involved Americans singing “O Canada.”) The authors of the study noted that soldiers are still trained to march in lock-step even though doing so in combat would be suicide, and that religious ceremonies frequently integrate coordinated gesture and repetition, so clearly the concept has been around a long time.

Integrating motion with acoustic aesthetic response isn’t new either. Music in Early Childhood educators will certainly recognize this as one of the concepts underlying Émile Jaques-Dalcroze’s Eurhythmics, and also Carl Orff’sSchulwerk, the fundamental values of which bear a strong resemblance to those of Sistema. Rather than suppressing the natural tendency of the body to react to music, many of these schools explore and celebrate it. And unsurprisingly, they also produce prosocial results in their participants too.

Which makes me wonder, did the Venezuelans really know from the outset how powerful gesture and motion is, musically AND socially? Or is this another thing that should be added to that long list of things that they understood intuitively and implicitly…?


Special thanks to Kate Einarson of the McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind for launching me on this track with the Kirschner & Tomasello study.



5 thoughts on “Poison and Pedagogy – revisiting the purpose of movement in music education

  1. Great observations, Jonathan.

    Tricia Tunstall observes many times in her book: “Changing Lives”- that the dance of the musicians themselves was a fascinating and ever-present part of the El Sistema as she observed it in Venezuela. It should seem obvious, even instinctive, that we should not sit still while we play. We must have taught ourselves in some way over the years not to. Those of us from Northern European stock are way too controlling, too proper, too worried about the audience.

    Love your writing- Encore !

  2. I look forward to more conversations on this topic. Its worthy of a workshop on its own merits. I remember being forbidden to move during the music at a school concert as an elementary child in the audience. Not to mention being told by my peers not to move expressively or appropriately with the music as concert mistress in my high school orchestra and Youth Symphony. I found it oppressive. Expecting professional musicians to be like this didn’t inspire any desire to keep playing in musical organizations.
    As a Suzuki Violin teacher I would dream of teaching like this. I’ve stopped worrying about offending my fellow teachers with the incorporation of movement. I use large movements with beginners and young children to keep them engaged and make the process less mysterious for parents.

  3. Cynthia, your experience is all too common unfortunately. As a horn player, I often played “off the leg” and was also scolded by the rest of the section for the sin of moving. As a conductor I’ve asked youth orchestras to incorporate some motion, but the concept is so alien they simply refuse or say they will, then cop out. No courage, no confidence.

    Jesse Rosen of the League of American Orchestras tells a great story about his time with the Seattle Symphony when he received a letter from a child who had come to an education concert, asking why the musicians were all so sad. Out of the mouth of babes…

  4. Movement is a language and like language it is acquired from one’s environment. My youngest students are the least inhibited or mechanical. When I get the youngest children moving it is so infectious that even my older students can forget themselves. Something to be said for inter-generational learning.
    Even when I work with older students I have them put down their instruments, as those movements are so frozen by their normal practice, and pick up a manipulative, scarf, ball or what ever is available. Students can move to their bowing, move to their breathing with the object, what ever concept you want to incorporate. Since there is no fear of dropping or breaking the instrument they are free to exaggerate their motions. My students have accepted that when learning a new piece, at any level of difficulty, this is the accepted way they will warm up for it, daily. Musical language is moving and breathing so we must start by preparing the body. It is through this type of daily active listening that the habits of movement begin to appear in their playing. It is very difficult to obtain a noticeable impact on their playing in one day as expressive movement requires internalization as much as, if not more than any another musical skill they will learn. Training for the core of their musical sensibilities as appose to something novel or peripheral.
    Hope this encourages anyone else out there with a desire to teach more musical movement to bravely persist in their pedagogic exploration and experimentation.

  5. I slightly disagree with the comments above.

    While it is important to feel free to move during playing, it should always be done in moderation. I tend to be an emotional performer, and have often found that moving too much can not only hinder beautiful sound production (pianists tend to lean into the piano, resulting in sub-optimal hand/arm position), but more importantly, it takes the emotion out of the music itself. I noticed recently (after 20 years of playing!) that socializing too much the day of a performance leaves me a little empty. If I have been talking all afternoon, somehow I end up not being able to express as much emotion through my playing. I simply feel spent.

    Similarly, I have always found that my music-making is more meaningful, expressive and emotional if I keep my body in check. Sitting somewhat still and channeling your energy and emotions through your arms and fingers is a very powerful thing and can truly aid in creating breathtaking music.

    The other issue in today’s music world is that playing expressively has somehow become equated to body movement and facial grimacing. It has, therefore, become very common for musicians to add this in artificially. A performer like Gil Shaham has a natural tendency to move freely in accordance to how he feels the music. Josh Bell and Lang Lang (among many others), however, seem to be creating artificial gestures that are only for show.

    The wonderful Lorin Hollander once said to me that we must first sing the music, then dance it, and then put it to our instrument. I love this idea and have implemented it in my own playing over the years. But when it comes to performance, there is something magical that can happen when you can channel self-expression to the music, rather than body movement.

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