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The Coordination of Being — Conducting
By Babette Lightner
Copyright (c) 2004 Babette Lightner, all rights reserved world-wide
Conducting is dancing. I saw this clearly recently when I asked seventy conductors
to conduct the same song at the same time. Suddenly there was a roomful of movers, everyone dancing
their unique version of the same piece. Some arms were high and wide and flowing others low and calm
and others swaying and bending, the arcs and strengths changing and turning — dancing. Imagine the different
sound and song each of these conductors would hear from their version of the piece.
The conundrum of conducting seems woven within this observation. Does a conductor
express in herself what she wants to hear? Why do the musicians sound tight? Why aren't they feeling
pianissimo here? Why does my back hurt? How the conductor understands the problem she perceives and
how she responds determines the effectiveness and sustainability of her solution. One thing that seems
to be true is that conductors often communicate information unintentionally that affects their musicians.
I am not a conductor. A conducting friend of mine suggested I be sure to let you
know this right up front. This article will not address anything about how to use your gesture to convey
specific musical concepts — the vocabulary of conducting, so to speak.
So what am I doing writing a conducting article? Essentially, I know something about
two things that can be useful for conductors. I know something about how our bodies work well in healthy
movement and what causes unhealthy or harmful movement — for instance, why do you ache between your
shoulder blades after a concert?
I also know something about how things we do intentionally cause particular unintentional
symptoms. For example, why do your shoulders keep coming up when you keep telling them to go down? Why
do you lean forward when you tell yourself to stand balanced on two feet? Why does the choir sound tight
when you keep telling them to flow and breathe?
I am a certified Alexander Technique Teacher(note1)
and I also have a lot of dance and movement training. But the core material I present here comes out
of the extraordinary work of anatomy maverick David Gorman, author of The Body Moveable and
Looking at Ourselves.(note2) Gorman took a new, in-depth
look at human anatomy from a functional point of view that led him to a new understanding of how we
coordinate our actions and what causes the problems people have. There are many ways this information
and other recent scientific research challenges much of Alexander's work. So, I can no longer say that
what I do is Alexander Technique, although I am certainly informed by what is useful from that body
of knowledge. In essence, this article is not about a particular technique. I am simply exploring how
some aspects of our current structural and functional knowledge about our human system, its balance
and mobility, can enhance your skills and the pleasure you find in your conducting.
There are two basic facts that underlie this change in approach from the traditional
postural model and even the newer body/mind approaches like Alexander Technique.
First, anatomically and functionally we are not built to operate
in positions. We can't hold a posture or try to get in "alignment" and still function efficiently. Optimal
functioning is based on an interplay between stability and mobility, all naturally coordinated and integrated
by our attention and intention on the activities in which we are involved. This interplay is more accurately
represented by a model of an elastically sprung web of suspension, a sort of tensegrity structure
for those of you who know Buckminster Fuller.(note3)
Second, there is no functional separation between body/mind/emotion.
You cannot give your body a physical instruction that it will maintain, as if it is something separate
from you, while you go on paying attention to something else or experiencing myriad thoughts and feelings.
In other words, you only have one attention.(note4)
While these two perspectives are familiar to many people conceptually, i.e. in an
"intellectual" sense, they continue to use language and operate from a pedagogy about body that does
not reflect these concepts. As soon as a direct physical instruction is given, like "take a deep breath",
"relax", "release your shoulders", we are back into an erroneous approach to ourselves and to our students.
What do we do? We need to develop a new language, a more accurate perception and
an exploratory pedagogy that truly reflect the facts of our coordinating system. How would this work?
Let's take an example. A conductor is standing talking to the choir. We see an alert, open, mobile person
who is breathing freely, who is balanced and engaged. The conductor looks at the clock and turns to
the choir and says, "OK, time to rehearse." Now we see the conductor standing behind the music stand,
baton in raised hand, and an overall sense of holding permeates her. Her chest is raised. There is very
little breathing except for a few forced take-a-breath kind of breaths. She is forward on her toes,
eyebrows raised. She is ready to start in a lifted, held, leaning-forward sort of way.
What is going on here? If we were to help this person from the postural or body/mind
separated approach we might tell her to relax or come back over her feet or release her elbow and breathe.
If, on the other hand, we come from the "whole-being as a coordinating-system" point of view we start
with a question to ourselves. The coordinating system perspective implies that we are already beautifully
designed for efficient action. If someone is in a seemingly inefficient coordination for what they want
to do then we first must ask ourselves why would their system be in this current coordination — in other
words, not what we can do to fix it, but why is it happening in the first place?
Let's come back to our conductor. We know she wants to feel free and balanced as
she conducts (she already told us). Yet as soon as she starts to conduct, even in that first preparatory
stillness, she has lost her freedom and balance. If we stop her and ask her about this she may not even
notice that she is stiffer. To help her notice, we could create a moment of comparison by having her
replay how she is when she is just talking to the choir and then compare it with the very next moment
of starting. She then may say, "Yes, I can feel I am forward on my toes and not breathing. But, I feel
ready. When I am just talking to the choir I don't feel ready yet."
Now, we ask, "Feel ready? Ready for what?"
"Ready to conduct", she replies. What we are doing is sleuthing out what she is doing,
what she is intending and what she is thinking at the moment she turns to the choir. In this case, what
she intends and what she feels she is doing is becoming "ready" to conduct. As we continue to ask a
few questions it becomes clear that her idea of ready has two parts. One is her conducting and singing
training in which she was told to lift her sternum or stand straight ("good posture" territory). The
other is her desire to connect with the choir.
Well take one aspect of the situation at a time.
First, we discover her stand-straight postural habit is so ingrained
that she no longer has to think "stand straight". She, in a sense, becomes a conductor by taking on
this lifted holding. We would then have her look closely at her resulting experience to accurately assess
if her idea of good posture is actually giving her the freedom and balance she wants. One simple experiment
so that she could begin to experience the holding and effortful part of her habit would be to have her
start to conduct as if she was just talking with her choir; for her to go about it as if she wasn't
a conductor. She would compare her "conductor" posture with her "just being herself" way and assess
the relative mobility and balance in each. This would probably be an appropriate time to introduce some
of the principles about her structure, about her elastic suspension and dynamic balance, and about supported
movement. So rather than telling her a new and "better" way to position herself or free herself (relax),
we are helping her discover her already-existing free and upright nature.(note5)
As she stops imposing her conductor posture she will be able to assess for herself which approach actually
allows her to be ready. In this way "ready" will get redefined as she sees it includes mobility, ease,
and support. In the same way "posture" will be redefined as she experiences her imposed holding and
how it impedes her freedom.
In fact, by the time we get to this point, we have what we need to be able to take
the next step to help her discover how posture interferes with the freedom in her choir's sound as well.
Remember, that other aspect of her "ready" was her desire to connect with her choir.
As soon as she wants to connect she leans over into them. That pull forward with raised eyebrows is
how her system coordinates her deep intention to connect. People often refer to this kind of pattern
as doing too much or getting in our own way.
However, it is important to see clearly that this is not quite what is happening
here. She is not pulling herself off balance and tightening her face the way she had consciously trained
herself to lift her chest. The leaning forward, in a simplistic sense, is her unconscious whole-body
response to her desire to connect with the choir. It is as if her attention flies out of her into them.
If we asked her where is her attention at the moment of "connecting" we would see that she has all her
awareness way over in the singers.
There is nothing wrong with her body, no bad "body use". What is happening as she
does this is that her system perfectly coordinates her into the shape and posture of someone who is
trying to connect by narrowing their attention out and into the choir. She is, in fact, in the "perfect
coordination" for this kind of connecting.
If she wants to change this habit what does she do? The old way might be to say,
"Do less, relax, stay over your feet or lean back". This correction may be useful temporarily but generally
leads to a whole new clutch of problems and an ongoing series of further corrections. The problem or
cause of the leaning forward strain does not lie in her body or her posture, it lies in her understanding
of connection with the choir. If we can take that apart and see clearly what is necessary for the act
of conducting she will find a real and permanent solution.
What does she mean by connecting with her choir? She wants the choir to know she
cares. She wants them to know she is ready. She wants them to be energized and ready. She wants to make
sure they come in to the music on time. She wants essentially to communicate multiple messages in that
first moment. So we dig a little with more questions. How does a choir know their conductor cares? How
do they know she's ready? How do they get energized and ready or come in on time? If she answers each
of these questions in turn and specifically it won't be long before it becomes clear that leaning forward
and raising her eyebrows has little to do with achieving any of these specifics.
First and foremost, connection is already occurring just by the mere act of being
in the same vicinity. We see and we hear. Humans are innately and automatically perceiving and communicating
creatures. She doesn't have to narrow her attention over into them to be seen or heard or to "connect".
If she simply is there in the role of conductor, looking and listening, that's all she needs to do.
Her attentiveness will be visible without having to show it. Their attention will follow.
This applies to "caring" too. She doesn't have to show she cares. If she cares it
will be expressed and perceived without any added expression that she cares. As we see in her habit
she shows much more than ready when she leans and intensifies her face. Typically the choir will stiffen
in response to being readied by this kind of conductor.
But this is not enough to change her pattern completely. We already learned that
part of what she means by wanting to connect is that she wants to make sure the choir comes in together
and on time. She wants control of the choir.
Ah, but can she actually "control" them? It is helpful to be clear of what she is
in control of and what she is not. A conductor can control her own movement, her own understanding and
what she teaches or prepares. In other words, she can control herself. The choir will or won't come
along. She can not control them from behind the stand or make sure they do something.
She CAN be clear. She CAN guide and lead them. That's the chance she takes in this
profession. This may seem terrifying to her. "I'm a control freak", she shouts. But if she goes one
step further and looks closely, she'll see that she doesn't really NEED to control them. Is it a 50/50
chance they'll come in or 95% chance they will? If she simply recognizes that the chances are quite
good they will come in on time — after all, this is what they want too — she will see that it is more
a question of trust than of control. Trust, plus the easy and unforced clarity of her lead and guidance,
will do more to bring about the result she wants than any tension and trying on her part.
Accurate and specific assessment of how things already work, as well as making peace
with and accepting the facts as they are will help her step out of the whole trap of worrying or trying
to control what is out of her control.
At first exposure to this exploring, questioning and discovering approach some feel
like this sort of analysis takes too much time, is too complicated. But if we look at the hour or two
it takes and then take in the new level of understanding and the profound and permanent results, we
can see that the time is well spent and ultimately saves much more time and suffering.
Our conductor is now experimenting with not positioning herself, just allowing herself
to be, as she is at this moment, with no need to change anything, simply because this moment is as it
is. She also has cleared up misconceptions about connecting with and controlling her choir. So this
next time as she turns to begin the rehearsal, she remains in her innate, effortless, balanced and supported
coordination to conduct the choir! She can now put her attention on the music and guide her choir from
her own center rather than be over in them trying to control them or inside herself trying to fix or
direct her body.
When she can operate this way, she will find that she now has access to the enormous
wealth of information available to her from her own system. This is the marvelous by-product of following
this coordinating system perspective. A person simply goes about living life and when something is amiss
their very own system wakes them up with a signal (usually with a symptom of some kind). Then they can
begin the journey of exploring and discovering the cause of the signal or symptom and changing it. End
of problem. Beginning of more knowledge and understanding. Plus they don't have to get stuck in the
vicious cycle of symptom, adjustment, another symptom, more adjustment, where there is an endless series
of more sophisticated and subtle, though usually temporary, attunements.
This conductor example has many tributaries of interesting implications into which
we could paddle. But I am choosing to stick to the main points for demonstration purposes. Yes, as you
listened to me work through this piece of work you may have thought of other explanations or had other
responses to questions. You may have noticed other possible misconceptions. After all, there are almost
as many responses as there are people and here we have just followed the path of one of them.
Sorting out misconceptions is the heart of much of this work. The unraveling begins
to almost do itself once you start to work from this different point of view. This is the point of view
of a whole-being coordinating system rather than a separate body and mind or even an integrated body/mind/spirit/emotion
model. We are one being, a coordinating being, who is always in the perfect coordination to how we frame
this particular moment. From this point of view, it makes no sense to make a direct change in your body
(relax your shoulders) or a change in your feelings (calm down). Instead, what makes sense is to look
closely, and through learning a new understanding comes and your framework changes. Your beautiful system
and its functioning follows. As a bonus, this kind of change is much more integrated, complete and connected
to the activity at hand than body/feeling directed changes.
The postural body-directed approach often masks the signals you get because you changed
the symptom before you've even learned its significance — you shot the messenger. If you relax your
shoulders or direct them to widen, you'll miss the message that tight shoulders are the perfect coordination
of something. But of what?
With the coordinating system approach, you simply let the message wake you up and
you notice, "Hey, my shoulders hurt. I don't like this feeling. Maybe something is happening that is
not good for me." Then you take the next step to explore what the message means: "Hmm? I wonder what
I'm up to that is causing this feeling of tight shoulders?" In this way you are acknowledging there
is nothing wrong with your shoulders or your body even though you hurt. In fact, the messenger is there
to give you an important opportunity to learn.
There is no such thing as bad body use. The wrongness, the problem lies somewhere
else. As you take a moment to reflect and explore you will discover what and where. For instance, you
may discover you were worrying about whether or not your performance would be good and imagining a negative
outcome. Shoulders tighten when you worry and anticipate the negative. When you are in touch enough
with your own system so the symptoms guide you to look with greater clarity at the situations and correlate
them with your thoughts, you not only have the key to being permanently free of specific symptoms, you
have the key to learning about yourself and ultimately great freedom.
In my experience with this approach results are quicker, more permanent and liberating
in the largest sense of the word. Having spent years believing the previous work I was doing was coming
from a whole person perspective yet constantly bumping up against contradictions, this new point of
view is a great relief. When any new approach brings greater clarity of explanation and easier application,
when it is simpler, more powerful and without apparent contradictions it would indicate we have found
a more accurate direction, closer to the way we function. If we are lucky, the work will continue to
grow more and deepen as we learn even more.
As I said in the introduction this articulation of the coordinating system is the
work of David Gorman. In the many years he has been exploring and working from this perspective he evolved
an approach to help people quickly and effectively sort through misconceptions and misperceptions. His
work starts at the level of the symptom, the wake-up call, working specifically from the particular
moment when the symptom occurs in order first to make sense of what is happening to find the cause of
the problem and only then changing that cause.
The coordinating system model is a description of how we work, of our inherent nature
as whole integrated human beings. In that sense, this approach which Gorman has called LearningMethods
isn't so much a system or a technique as it is a set of methods of… well… learning. Learning how to
more accurately understand our system in this new way and allow ourselves to function accordingly.
The hallmark of this approach is that he is always teaching you how to use your own
intelligence and your own awareness to makes sense of the problem and gain more knowledge of yourself.
Many mindfulness and bodywork approaches talk about awareness but LearningMethods is the tool kit for
the most direct and practical way to be aware, showing you exactly where to look and how to sort it
out. LearningMethods classes are more than sessions helping you to solve specific troubles — they hand
the tools over to you and teach you how to solve your own problems.
For more information about David Gorman's discoveries and work, see other articles
and pages on this web site (www.learningmethods.com).
For more information about Babette's work see her web site:
www.babettelightner.com, or contact her by phone at 612-729-7127 or by e-mail:
There is a small biography of personal details about the
About the Author
Babette Lightner is director of Stones in Water
— a Movement Education and LearningMethods Center in Wisconsin. Lightner is a Registered Somatic
Movement Educator, has a degree in Dance, is a Certified Teacher of the Alexander Technique
and is one of four Certified LearningMethods Teachers in the United States.
For ten years she has taught in the Professional Actor Training Program
at the University of Minnesota. She created human coordination classes for the Music Department
at the University of Minnesota and at Macphail Center for the Arts. She was the Artist
in Residence for the Theatre Department at the University of Wisconsin, River Falls.
Lightner has lectured and taught for many universities, institutions and organizations
including the Guthrie Theater, Sister Kenny Institute, Balk Opera Music Institute,
Voice Center of Fairview, Taipei National University of Arts in Taiwan. She is on
the faculty of the VoiceCare Network. For 18 years Lightner has maintained an individual
practice initially as an Alexander Technique Teacher and currently as a LearningMethods teacher.
In this practice she works with people dealing with pain, and stress issues and with performers
who want to get better at what they do.
Babette's explorations into human movement have taken her around the world from
dancing with a folk dance troupe in the villages of South India to performing with a post-modern
physical theatre company in the warehouses of Boston. She is currently one of a handful of teachers
pioneering a new paradigm for understanding human structure and function in the Anatomy of Wholeness™
workshops. She has developed her own movement work called Wholeness in Motion™. This innovative
approach brings together her range of expertise in movement work including: LearningMethods, as
well as Alexander Technique, Yoga, Tai Chi Chuan, Body Mind Centering, Bartenieff Fundamentals,
Modern and Ethnic Dance, Mindfulness, and Laban Movement Analysis. She maintains an active workshop
and lecture schedule.
River Falls, Wisconsin, USA
Tel: +1 612-729-7127 web site: www.StonesInWater.com
Alexander Technique has been used by musicians for many years now. There are many resources available
on the internet — simply search for: Alexander Technique. The LearningMethods work is now being
taught in many music and theatre schools and conservatories in Europe and North America (see
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The Body Moveable by David Gorman is a 600-page illustrated musculo-skeletal anatomy reference book.
Looking at Ourselves is a 123-page collection of articles and essays. Both are available online
from LearningMethods Publications.
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The pre-sprung elastic suspension system model of human structure is articulated by Gorman in his
Patterns of Being workshops. He originally wrote about this in a
series of articles in the early 1980's called In Our Own Image (included
in his Looking at Ourselves book) and currently is writing a
book about this system and its implications. Essentially, the model shows how it is our active, aware
opening to the world around us and to the support of the earth that elicits an interplay between gravity
and our structure that activates us into an entire web of tensional support which springs us into our
dynamic, responsive, mobile uprightness. While Gorman's model is definitely built on the up-to-date
scientific facts of our musculo-skeletal structure combined with its molecular neuro-muscular activation
and coordination, he has added a profound new level of insight by looking at it all from the point-of-view
of the whole, thinking, choosing, responding person.
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Here is a wonderful articulation about attention by David Gorman (from
a workshop, August 2002):
"It often happens that we innocently try to do two
things at once, for example, a violinist needs to be paying attention to the actual music she wants
to play yet also tries to attend to controlling her fingering on the strings, or an archer knows
he should be paying attention to the target but tries to also pay attention to controlling his breathing.
They are both caught in one of the most common fallacies — that we have more than one attention
and hence can pay attention to more than one thing at once. This illusion arises because what people
are doing when they think they are paying attention to several things at once is instead to be quickly
switching back and forth, but so subtly that they usually do not realize.
This ability to quickly shift focus is very helpful
in certain circumstances, but when people mistake this as if they have multiple attentions they
can be led into unconstructive habits. In the cases above the misconception is that they know their
main focus or "primary" attention should be on the music or the target. They think they have indeed
directed it there and "left it running" while they bring a secondary focus onto the details of the
fingering or the breathing. That this is an illusion is easy to show, for when we help them to really
stay with their main focus and resist the temptation to go off to the other details, they not only
register how different that is and how much more present they are with their goal, but their functional
coordinations are better and the resulting music or archery is also much better. Somehow the system
took care of the details when they got out of its way and simply stayed clear about and focused
on the goal. You, the conscious attentive being, are the boss and you need to lead. How can the
ship function unless the captain is up on the bridge steering where he wants to go — if he goes
below-decks to tell the workers exactly how to shovel coal, who is up on the bridge leading?
Another aspect of the problems that can arise from
this illusion is when people say, "I wasn't present", or "I couldn't concentrate" as if there is
a state called "not being present" or "not concentrating". When we look closely it turns out that
they were in fact present, just not with the task at hand. Rather they had been distracted and were
present with something else, maybe their feelings of nervousness or their thoughts of how to do
their techniques, or thoughts about how well they were doing or what others were thinking, etc.
Once a person realizes that she has only one attention and if it wasn't directed where it should
be it must have been placed elsewhere, she is on the first steps toward being aware of what she
is aware of, then she will be able to consciously perceive her attention shifts and to recognize
what thoughts, feelings or emotions have dragged her away from what she intended to do. Only then
can real understanding of what is happening and real choice and control become possible again."
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I am not going into the detail of how to re-educate this conductor about
the suspension system at this point. It would demand an article of its own. Leave it to say the approach
is radically different than most experiential anatomy and does not leave a person attending to ways
to make their body better by directly becoming more aware of body parts and so forth.
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