I recently talked about the danger of judgmental feedback, and the value of just “saying what you see.”
Sometimes the best way to “say what you see” is by using words. But words require deliberate diction, fluency, tone, and rate to communicate exactly what you mean.
In my experience 10 carefully chosen words can almost always take the place of 100. Using fewer words keeps communication clearer, emphasizes what is important, and leaves room for as much student/teacher interaction in the lesson as possible.
But even 10 carefully chosen words can replaced by a well timed, clear gesture.
Instead of reminding a student verbally to curve their pinkie, you can remind them with a light tap. They make the correction themselves. Instead of describing the way you want the music to swell to the climax of the phrase, you can simply move your hand in the shape of the music you want as they play. Instead of saying over and over again “open your elbow,” you form your hand into a simple buffer resting on the outside of their arm that encourages them to open their arm instead of swing it. In these cases, no words are required to communicate meaningfully.
I’m not advocating for completely mute teaching, but I think it is worth fully exploring the power of gestural communication. Consider an incomplete list of advantages of prioritizing symbolic gestures over words.
- universally understood at all ages (doesn’t require advanced listening or speaking skills)
- leaves sound space for music making, students don’t have to focus their ears on the sound of your voice
- an opportunity to vary the sort of feedback you give (not always verbal instruction)
- less invasive, more of a suggestion or invitation than demanding words
- can be peripheral, so student can maintain focus in most important task but you can still offer correctives
- accommodates other learning styles
Gestures can be a gateway into a whole new world of kinesthetic understanding that words might never allow.
I’ve sorted the types of gestures integral in my teaching into three broad categories: guiding, mirroring, and contouring.
Using your hands to encourage a certain kind of playing by physically moving your students is what I call “guiding” gestures. Gestural guides are movements that show your student the kind of movement you want by conforming their physicality to that kind of movement.
Guides are similar to training wheels. They help teach young cyclists what the ultimate feeling of bike riding is like, before they are ready to do it themselves. As coordination, strength, and balance increase, the training wheels come off. But the new cyclists are learning to ride without the training wheels with an experience of relaxed success instead of approaching the skill blind.
A few examples of guiding gestures are…
- putting a hand behind the bow arm to make sure it opens
- forming the bow hold for a student
- parent or teacher guided arm scrubbing
- supporting the scroll so it doesn’t dip
- resting a finger on the LH thumb to encourage relaxation and a straight wrist
This category of gestures takes advantage of our evolved ability to imitate well. For millennia we have been relying on our ability to learn from the experiences of others. Instead of using words to ask for what you want a student to do, you do the action yourself. Typically as soon as a student sees you perform an action, they immediately change their behavior to match that action. In many cases this imitation seems to happen subconsciously.
Identify an aspect of your student’s playing you would like to change, and while they are playing move you body in the way you would want them too. As long as your movement is in view of the student, their behavior will change— usually in the way you want it to. They will mirror you.
The opposite also works well. If you do exactly what your student is doing incorrectly, they will change their behavior to do what they think is correct. They will be aware of the issue that needs attention.
Some examples of mirroring gestures are…
- lengthening your spine and standing tall, so the student lifts their violin form a drooping posture
- stick you Left Hand fingers straight up in the air so the student then curves theirs over the finger board
- bend your RH thumb
- move you RH fingers like a jellyfish, they wk respond with flexible motion in every joint.
- stick out your left wrist at on obscene angle, the will hang the wrist down straight
Occasionally a student won’t respond to your gesture with an appropriate change to their playing. In this case your gesture and lack of response shows an intellectual or somatic misunderstanding that you can then correct with a few powerful words.
The final category of gestures is one that communicates the abstract shape of your musical interpretation in a physical way.
These gestures are the foundation of conducting. When I took instrumental conducting with Dr. Hannah at the University of Texas at Austin we spent a lot of time deciding
- How we thought the music should sound, and
- How out we can move ourselves to embody the music we hear
So as students learn to make musical decisions I choose to encourage those with my own gestures rather than words.
In book 3, when we spend concerted time and energy mastering the skill of phrasing, I have student’s perform their own musical gestures.
Here are examples of musical, contouring gestures I make in the lesson…
- raise my hand up for crescendo, lower for decrescendo
- swing my arm in an arc to represent an emphasis with decay
- move my hand in an infinity pattern to encourage lyrical, legato bowing
- follow an ascending helical shape to represent sequential development
I find that the most exciting music moves us phyically while we listen to it. Whether it is the swoops and crests of a roller coaster, or the rocking of a boat, or the suspension of gravity-less outer space, music should inspire some sense of feeling in the listener.
What better a way to inspire that feeling than by teaching our students physical embodiments of their music from the beginning. Why not teach them how to physically embody their own musical ideas?
The meaning of gestures can be confused when a student starts to interpret them all in the same way. We would never want a student to use guiding gestures to influence the sound they should make, or see a mirroring gesture and interpret the opposite of what you are trying to communicate.
In fact, it would be downright detrimental for a student to incorporate your musical contouring gestures into the collection of motions used to get the sound you wanted. It is often a student’s attempt to embody those sound embodiments in their own body that inefficiencies are born. For example, a student might droop their scroll to play softer or move their violin across their body in an arc to follow a phrase. These motions, though certainly representative of the shape of the sound desired, don’t actually aid in getting the sound desired.
The confusion of guided, mirrored, and interpreted gestures can be dangerous.
So proceed deliberately.
In your teaching practice, begin incorporating gestures one by one. Consider where you have the most potential to cut down on verbal communication in your work with students on posture, technique, and musical interpretation.
Pick just one category of gesture to deploy in weeks of teaching with all of your students. Challenge yourself to identify an opportunity to use a particular type of gesture in the lesson, use it, and reflect on how well it worked afterward. Once one type of gesture begins to feel integrated, you can begin work on another type.
Enjoy exploring the frontier of communication through gesture. I hope you find movements that unlock exponential potential in your teaching!