Mind Tools: Applications and Solutions


What to Think About When You Conduct:
Perception, Language, and Musical Communication
Part 3 (of 4)
Download complete article as PDF file

Lee Humphries

Language and Perception

Few of us realize the extent to which language filters our experiences and prescribes our responses.  Language is hypnotic.  Every sentence is an indirect suggestion.  Its vocabulary, syntax, and vocal characteristics evoke a mental framework that brings certain perceptions to the foreground of our awareness.

These perceptions, in turn, shape our behavior.  Behavior is metaphoric, a physiological representation of the meaning we ascribe to our perceptions.

Every time you say something in a rehearsal, you orient the players toward one set of perceptions and responses—and away from another set.  Let's examine this further.

Reinforcing solidarity.  There is no doubt that an ensemble plays better when everyone shares a feeling of community and common purpose.  The language environment subtly reinforces or undermines this feeling.  When you say "we," "us," "you and I," or "you and me," the plural form paints a picture of people functioning as a unit.  When you say "I," "me," or "you" in the singular, you present the image of people acting separately.  Personal pronouns and conjunctions are psychological fences that symbolically hold people together or keep them apart.

Minimizing resistance.  To accomplish much of anything, you must have the goodwill of the players.  Goodwill is limited: Use it up, and resistance will set in.

It is a fact of human nature that people don't like to be told what to do.  Instructing professional musicians is a particularly delicate matter.  They have invested a lifetime in perfecting their skills; for many, their self image as a person is deeply intertwined with their public image as a performer.  They don't like to appear deficient.  But who does?

When you tell musicians to do something ("Play it this way."), you're using the imperative mood, a linguistic construction that commands.  And a command puts the recipient in a socially subordinate position.

A negative command ("Don't play it that way!") compounds the problem: It only tells the players what they shouldn't do; they are left to infer what they should do.  The imprecision of a negative command puts players in the frustrating position of having to meet your expectations without knowing exactly what they are.

You can't avoid giving instructions to the ensemble, of course.  But you can do it in a way that takes the edge off.

Use a positive approach.  Give the players a clear musical goal to work toward.  Say what you want, not what you don't want.

If you are working with competent players, focus your instructions on expression, not technique.  Aside from issues of string bowings, wind articulations, brass mutes, percussion mallets, etc., avoid telling them how to play their instruments.  Even when you recognize the mechanical cause of a musical mishap, you're likely to get better cooperation if you deal with it in a roundabout way.  You might ask the section leader to make a recommendation.  (Later, we'll consider nonverbal approaches.)

Insofar as you can, address your corrections to groups of players, rather than to individuals.  This makes your remarks seem less personal.

Phrase instructions as questions: "Violins, can we have more bow on these notes?"  Now you're asking, not telling.

Put the verb in the passive voice: "Measure four can be played more quietly."  This emphasizes the needed change and de-emphasizes (by omission) the person who has to make it.

Eliminate the verb altogether: "A little faster here."  This states the desired outcome, but doesn't really tell anybody to do anything.  It contains only adjectives and adverbs.

Finally, be aware that your body language and vocal inflections qualify your speech.  Players can be put off by how things are said as well as what things are said.

Increasing sensory awareness.  All of us represent the world to ourselves in terms of our senses.  Generally we think with visual, kinesthetic, and auditory images.  Musical performance skills are founded on the ability to make subtle kinesthetic and auditory discriminations.

Your can encourage such perceptions and influence which sense the players use to process information.  Consider two sentences:  "Let's play that passage again and see what's going on" and "Let's go over that once more and hear what's happening."  On the surface, they seem pretty much alike.  But the first is an indirect suggestion to bring visual information into the foreground of awareness, whereas the second is an indirect suggestion to concentrate on auditory information.

Eliciting unconscious insight.  As I pointed out earlier, we make sense of a thing by carrying out an internal search for its meaning.  This process lies beyond our volitional control: The search is spontaneous, and its outcome is unconsciously determined.  Searches for meaning are triggered by such things as ambiguity and incompleteness.

Certain words lack content.  They are merely linguistic markers that fill a grammatical slot without providing any concrete information.  Among these are the interrogatives "what" and "where."  Such words are pathways to the unconscious.  Since they lack content, they are ambiguous.  And being ambiguous, they trigger an unconscious search to find their contextual meaning.

How do we apply all this to music?  Here's an example.

In rehearsal, players sometimes encounter a technical problem for which they have no conscious solution; so any breakthrough will have to originate in the unconscious.  The breakthrough will likely involve new kinesthetic and/or auditory perceptions—because technique is largely encoded in these sensory modes.  Therefore, we enlist the aid of the unconscious by saying something like this: "Where did you feel least comfortable in that passage?"

At first, most players can't answer this question with any precision—proof that part of their experience lies outside their conscious awareness.  But on the next playing, the question will trigger some musically significant mental operations:

•       There will be a search for the musical location of "where"—a term whose concrete meaning is initially incomplete.

•       The search will be kinesthetic because of the words "feel" and "comfortable."

•       And comfort, a correlate of facile technique, will become foremost in their conscious awareness.  (If you subtly elongate or otherwise intensify the words "feel" and "comfortable" when you say the sentence, you will also send a subliminal message that says, "Feel comfortable.")

I have seen questions like this one—so simple on the surface—lead players to quite unexpected technical advances.  The question's potency lies in its capacity to simultaneously initiate an internal search, specify the sensory domain of the search, and elevate that domain into conscious awareness—all in one seemingly off-the-cuff remark.

We make indirect suggestions to help players utilize things they know at an unconscious level, but not at a conscious level.  The effectiveness of indirect suggestion depends on the consistency of the messages, the frequency of their repetition, the naturalness of their presentation, and the psychological needs of the player.

We must know what kind of perceptions will illuminate the musical situation, what kind of linguistic forms will evoke them, and how to casually introduce those forms into our remarks at the right moment.  Then it's up to the unconscious part of each player's mind to accept or reject a suggestion as it sees fit.

Continue to Part 4 (of 4)
Return to Part 2
Return to Part 1




Bookmark and Share

About the author
Return to Home Page
E-mail us