Chief Instructor: Sifu John C. Loupos - Since 1968

The Art of Kung-ducting

by Orlando Cela

Imagine you are going to interview for a job. You dress very well, prepare your answers, and do some research about the company. Then you arrive at your interview. The secretary asks you to go in the office. You sit down, fix your posture; smile a lot, look confident... All in all, your task is to influence the decision of the person who is interviewing you for your benefit. Now imagine that your job is to stand in front of a large group of people, up to one hundred at a time, who are intently looking at you and following your every move, knowing that your every single gesture will influence the outcome of what they do. That is the essence of conducting.

The power of gesture applies to everyday life. Unconsciously or not, we make a statement with the way we look, and we make an impression on others in the way we look. In conducting, you literally hear that statement. Those so inclined can spend a lifetime studying gestures in order to preserve music as an art. I have been conducting seriously for about four years now. I have conducted choirs, orchestras, wind ensembles, string ensembles... And finally, just six months ago, I found myself enlightened by something that improved the sound of my ensembles dramatically: Kung Fu.

As you other students well know, we continuously strive to make our technique more effective through -- among other things -- correct body alignment. What changed my conducting life was my scapula (you have not been long enough at Jade Forest if you haven’t heard Sifu say that word!). By lowering my scapula while I do my arm motions, I have increased not only my stamina, but I have improved the sound of my ensemble. For example, I may wish to demonstrate great energy to the choir. The old me would unconsciously raise his shoulders up to his ears, put his elbows to the rib cage, press his teeth together and shake his fists to the group. The choir did sing louder, but also, the tension in their shoulders and in their necks made the sound come screeching, because their bodies reacted the same way as mine: tension everywhere, all air passages closed, and no resonance. These musicians are very serious about their profession and they watch the conductor intently, observing for very single cue.

Through my training at Kung Fu I learned that my musicians would produce a much rounder sound if I lowered my shoulders, arched my arms out, and grounded myself to the floor while shaking my fists to the chorus, this very much in the same way that a simple punch is more effective if your shoulders are down. The choir now sees that my body is producing strength, and also that it is open and not tense. This helps to open the singers’ bodies in a way to make them more resonant. Try these two gestures in front of a mirror and you’ll know what I mean.

This is but one of the things a conductor must do. There are many subtleties involved in conducting that take years and years to master, but for me, this is a great beginning. The great conductors always look relaxed in the podium, and yet they produce an amazing amount of energy. Next time you see a Boston Symphony concert, you’ll see (often) great power with little effort (Tai Chi, anyone?). Who knows, maybe you’ll recognize a great conductor in your town band or chorus, and you might be able to say, “Great Beethoven, but it could be better if you curl your tailbone under!”

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