Body Language

The Aesthetics of Body Language and Phrasing, and their Relation to Technique

originally written 14/11/13

Yes, the title is a mouthful…but this issue is increasingly dominating much of my teaching, as well as my own practice and performance, and literally every conversation I have with others and myself when I am away from the flute.

Body language runs rampant pretty much every waking moment of our lives; to become aware of it is to become aware of how energy is transmitted between people, beyond and in spite of the words and sounds that we use. In fact, it does more than just express our thoughts and feelings – it betrays who we really are and what our intensions are. Body language is the unedited physical manifestation of our emotional reality. 

What I can usually immediately tell from the body language while people play:

1.    Whether they are comfortable or not
2.    Whether they are feeling the music
3.    Whether they are sincere
4.    The ease/difficulty of breathing
5.    Whether they care about their audience
6.    The ease/difficulty of sound production and/or finger-work
7.    Whether the person is showing off or putting on an act
8.    Whether a performer is driven by the phrase
9.    Whether a person is ‘trying too hard’ or zoned out
10.    Whether a person is struggling with the beat or in harmony with it
11.    The list goes on!

These messages are transmitted spontaneously and immediately through our movements even if we have thought long and hard about them, and often do not necessarily correspond with the sounds that are actually being produced, although mostly they do. 

If you delve deeper, you become aware of the discrepancies that often appear between a person’s original intent and what is actually happening. These can undermine the message we are trying to share with our audience, and can wreak havoc on the consistency of our playing (in other words: our technique).

Below are a few tendencies that I notice are very common among many players:

Tapping of the knee/foot/toe, related to beating time
One of the most common physical gestures is to beat time with the upper body or elbow, knee, foot or toe. The issue is not whether or how the gesture manifests itself, but WHY. Anything we say or do for a defensive reason tends to fall flat on its face, because we are off balance and at a disadvantage - this is the issue, rather than the movement itself…if we fix the cause of defensiveness, we fix the movement – from its root. We must always seek to address the cause not the symptom otherwise we are only effecting cosmetic changes and exchanging one dysfunctional gesture for another. 

Looking more closely at the gestures related to beating time, you will begin to realise how it actually affects the accuracy of your playing. Often the gestures bear little relation to where we are actually intending on placing the note itself!! This often results in a lack of accuracy in our coordination and leads directly to unnecessary muscular intervention (tension), as we instinctively try to override these inaccuracies – essentially, we are out of synch and trying to force our bodies to realign with the moment…and the bigger the gesture, the more fundamental our discomfort. If we don’t deal with this aspect of our playing we wind up in a constant state of damage limitation resulting from this physical dysfunction.

From the aesthetic point of view, physically highlighting individual beats inadvertently prioritizes the beat over the phrase. Instead of the movement reaching its culmination at the conclusion of a phrase we wind up peaking on every single beat. 

This kind of body language leads to technical problems, not to mention musical suicide.

The Breath Spasm
I notice very similar body language patterns related to breathing, where our desperation at the point of breathing is highlighted by the body language. The most common movements associated with this phenomenon are either the downwards swipe as we inhale, or the tight lifting up of the shoulders (and often both these movements are accompanied by the knees buckling in sympathy). Apart from looking terrible and destroying the journey of the phrase, these movements severely undermine our actual ability to inhale in an unobstructed way.

Again, this is being instigated by severe discomfort (physical AND emotional), however in this case the primary cause of discomfort is NOT the beat, but from our sense of panic/desperation leading up to, and at the point of, the breath; a by-product of this ‘panic’ is that we rush. Going over the phrase with full musical involvement (this helps the breathing enormously) and mapping out exactly what you want and where you begin falling apart, will reveal the way forward; this can take time (sometimes several weeks), so patience is not just a virtue – it is an absolute necessity. Again, we must resist dealing with the symptom at the expense of dealing with the root cause…the physical manifestation of discomfort is the last link in a chain of events. 

The functional route to solving the problem is to figure out the most musical and subtle way to bend the beat around the point of the breath…but there is usually a great deal of guilt associated with this, because the beat is often (wrongly) considered absolutely sacrosanct – we often confuse ‘timing’ with ‘beating’, both of which require innate accuracy but one is very restrictive, while the other is thoroughly liberating and empowering.

Holding the Flute
The way we hold our flute and move our fingers over the keys tells us a lot about our relationship with the instrument and is an extension of this body language discussion. We must hold the instrument like we would hold a friend: we need to be firm, trusting, flexible and sensual. This has an enormous influence on the tension levels of playing, as well as the quality and beauty of the sound we produce. We need to hold the flute with authority, without losing any sensitivity or flexibility in the process. 

Of course, this is not just a question of simply ‘relaxing’….once more, it involves creating an emotionally functional connection with the instrument – holding the flute with love, pleasure and joy transforms the experience and wakes up our senses, nerves and muscles to a heightened state. 

The Eyes: Window into the Soul
Finally, the smallest but most powerful body language is revealed through our eyes. The eyes are the focal point of our aura as human beings; that is why we instinctively look at the eyes when we talk to people (unless we are uncomfortable) because this reveals the true energy, which tends to dance invisibly over, under and in between any words that are flying around. The popular metaphor ‘Eye of the Storm’ very vividly describes the utterly devastating core force that lies at the still centre of any powerful phenomenon. 

In terms of flute playing, the body language taking place in the eyes is a hugely relevent factor that is often totally overlooked. Because the actual sound production on the flute is virtually invisible (compared to the bowing and vibrato movements that are visible when playing a string instrument), the impact (positive or negative) of the expression in our eyes becomes multiplied to a huge degree. 

We need to notice the emotional basis behind our blinking, flinching, looking at the ceiling or the floor, whether we close our eyes or stare at something static or meet the gaze of someone during performance, as this reveals the heart of who we are and whether we are in tune with our environment and the blossoming moment. Our eyes betray the precise moment when we are feeling the strain of a particular passage, while at the same time short-circuiting our concentration at the very moment when we need to be at our most lucid. 

In my opinion, a functional use of our eyes often solves many other body language issues, too. 

So where to go from here? Move less? Move more? Look at the ceiling? Eyeball the audience? Is all this analysis just navel-gazing and a recipe for chronic inhibition? 

No, no, no, no and no. 

As mentioned, the challenge is to identify the cause, usually emotional, linked to any stress point that consequently manifests itself as ‘body language’. Whilst playing, we need to fully engage in the moment with great emotional force and our real priority needs to be the merging of notes (and our body movements) into a phrase. The culmination of a phrase is the end of the last note, extending beyond the breath into another phrase…and so on and on and on until the end of the piece, which in physical terms becomes the ‘ultimate arrival beat’ – so we need to learn to absorb our energies and peak at the right time with our movements, if we are to create a storyline with our music, rather than a series of notes or beats.

Identify your aim and fix the cause of your discomfort…and you will have liberated your movements without falling into the trap of developing dysfunctional physical fetishes. The aim is not to control the movements, but to liberate ourselves.

© Wissam Boustany