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Forte: Body language and the concertmaster

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Yakima Symphony Concertmaster Denise Dillenbeck. (Photo by Gary Miller)

YAKIMA, Wash. -- Tweets and texts: short and sweet, or brief and open to misunderstanding? Where is that picture of a thousand words? Where is it that nonverbal communication increases the precision and nuance of the words, lightens the mood, softens a blow, “speaks” when words cannot be found?

Music is often held up as a prime example of this nonverbal space, but how do ensemble musicians themselves receive the instructions that allow them to communicate with an audience?

The impact of nonverbal and verbal communication has been studied for decades, with the upshot being that nonverbal communication conveys significantly more information than verbal communication. By the numbers, at times words may account for only 7 percent of how a message is delivered, with the rest coming from tone of voice and body language. It is precisely this phenomenon that the orchestra concertmaster engages through body language on the stage.

As the “first chair” violinist in a symphony orchestra, the concertmaster is the leader not only of the violin section, but of the entire string section and in some ways the orchestra as a whole. Like the conductor, he or she communicates performance style by physical example and aids in synchronization across the ensemble through gestures and eye contact with other key musicians.

In some orchestral music performed without a conductor, the concertmaster actually conducts through this body language while playing.

As with tweets, the printed music is a kind of shorthand that requires elaboration in order to convey meaning accurately and completely, and the concertmaster has a role to play here as well. Prior to a performance, the concertmaster provides additional markings for all other string players before rehearsals begin, markings that allow them to move their bows together in unison and interpret more consistently the nonverbal cues in rehearsal and performance. The combination of these “verbal” and nonverbal instructions from the concertmaster can profoundly change the sound and character of a piece of music; these decisions are critical to achieving a particular quality of performance.

You may never hear the concertmaster speak, but at every orchestra concert a lot is being said from the front desk of the violin section.

• Learn more about the Yakima Symphony Orchestra at yso.org.

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