The interpretation of a conductor's nonverbal communication by ensemble members and the impact on conducting education
Hansen, Joseph S.
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Conducting gestures and facial expressions can be interpreted with wide variance by musicians, even within ensembles with a close range of technical mastery and experience. In this study, I examined the interpretations of a music conductor’s nonverbal communication to collegiate wind ensemble students and the accompanying pedagogical considerations when leading live performers. The conceptual framework of the study was kinesics, “the study of body movements, facial expressions, and gestures” (Ottenheimer, 2009, p. 160), and more specifically, Ekman and Friesen’s (1969) categories of nonverbal communication. Within this framework, the two categories I used specifically were emblems- nonverbal signals from the body representing a verbal message, and affect displays- characterizations of an emotion or other message depicted primarily on the face. Utilizing gesture descriptions compiled by Sousa (1988), I created a video stimulus to interview students on their reactions to 21 gestures of the hands, arms, and torso, as well as 10 naturally occurring facial expressions while conducting. Using the conducting video as the stimulus, I interviewed 80 college students at nine college campuses. Students participated in an individual 30-minute interview where they watched each of the 31 video excerpts and gave verbal feedback about what they perceived as the message of each of the gestures or facial expressions. Data were analyzed and compared to Sousa’s (1988) descriptions of each gesture from which the conductor attempted to demonstrate on the video. Utilizing Ekman and Friesen’s (1969) metric of 70% recognition to code a response as an emblem, 16 of the 21 gestures (76%) were discovered to be musical emblems, compared to 71% in Sousa’s (1988) study. Only 12 out of 21 gestures were identified as emblems in both studies (57%). Categories of the strongest prevalence in the current study of emblems included dynamics and tempo changes. Results from the 10 videos of facial expression netted more than ten different themes per affect display, each with diverse descriptions of musical and emotional messages. Overall results showed the small muscle movements of the face are capable of multi-message and multi-signal semiotic functions (Ekman & Friesen, 1978) with robust descriptions that can change rapidly in significant ways.