Expressive Body Language
Chris Stoutenborough
February 23, 2015

Can you laugh without smiling? While not impossible, it is very difficult and very strange. Can you create joyful music with a scowl and your shoulders slouched? Maybe, but it won’t feel quite right. Smile (with just your eyes if you are playing a wind or brass instrument) and you will find laughing or playing joyful music to be much more natural and effortless. The way we use our bodies through facial expression, posture, and movement has a profound effect on the way we can make music.

We normally think of emotions originating internally and being expressed externally. If you feel happy, you may smile. If you feel angry, you may scowl. Less well known is that external expressions strongly influence internal feelings.  If you smile, you may feel happy. If you scowl, you may feel angry. Our feelings and the way we use our bodies influence each other.

                               Figure 1

For musicians, this is extremely important. Your ability to express and communicate emotions through music is intimately connected to your feelings, and your feelings are influenced by the way you use your body. Your facial expressions and posture can change the way you feel and the way you make music.

                                                      Figure 2

If all of these parts are aligned, they support and reinforce each other. If these parts are not aligned, they work against each other.

Too often, our facial expressions and posture reflect the technical challenges in playing our instrument instead of our musical intention. Playing precisely in tune and in time is difficult, and often our brows furrow with deep concentration and our bodies tense with great effort. A furrowed brow and rigid posture can color the music with a seriousness and severity that is not usually the expressive goal. Learn to align your facial expression, posture, and movement with your expressive intention and your music will be more effective.

Here are some ideas and exercises that will help you achieve more alignment between what you feel and the way you use your body. These techniques for daily life, practice, and performance will improve your ability to be expressive with your body, deepen your understanding and experience of emotions, and enhance your ability to communicate effectively through your music.



In Daily Life:

1) Pay attention to your facial expressions, postures, and movements in everyday life. Through many daily activities we unconsciously use our bodies in ways that can color our experience of the world. By becoming more conscious of these expressions, you can gain more understanding and control of your body and feelings.

Do you scowl in the sun? Does it affect your mood? When you are feeling impatient, how is that expressed in your body? Can you regain patience by changing your breathing and posture? Does your posture change when you are around different people? How does changing your posture affect how you feel? Do you think better with certain postures or positions? How does the way you walk change with different moods and feelings? Can you change your mood by changing the way you walk? Does your breathing differ with mood? Can you change your mood by changing your breathing?

The more you can be aware of and control your facial expressions, postures, and movements in everyday life, the more you will be able to control them as you are making music.

2) Develop a blank canvas. Any facial expression can color the way you experience the world. This coloring can be helpful or unwelcome depending on if it is aligned with what you want. If you scowl, it can reinforce feelings of anger, but it can also inhibit any feeling that is not anger. A neutral facial expression can be a blank canvas that allows you to be more receptive and more poised to express any emotion.

When you are walking, waiting in line, brushing your teeth, playing scales, playing long tones, or any non-expressive activity throughout your day, relax your face. You will likely find your face reverting back to a non-relaxed position if you aren’t paying attention. When this happens, gently acknowledge the change and restore your attention towards relaxing your face.

If you find yourself stuck intellectually or emotionally, notice your posture and facial expression. You will probably find yourself physically stuck in some way. Allow your body to return to a neutral position, and you may feel more open and free.



During Practice:

3) Develop ideas about what you want to communicate. Communication does not happen by accident. If you don't have a clear idea of what you want to say, you won't say anything clearly.

Study the emotional intent of the music you play. What is the composer saying? What do you want to say? What do you want the audience to experience? Be as specific as possible. For example, a good first step is to determine that a piece of music may feel happy, but because happy is such a generic description, it is not very evocative or impactful. It is better to be more specific. If you determine the music should be ecstatic or peaceful or cheerful, or even a mixed feeling like wistful or bittersweet, you have a much clearer goal to work towards. The more specific you are in your intentions and the more vivid your feelings, the greater the possibility you will communicate something clearly.

4) Be an actor and a dancer. As musicians we primarily pay attention to how emotions sound and feel. It is also important to understand how emotions look and move. Learn how to use your posture and movement in expressive ways.

If you intend to play a phrase calmly and peacefully, how can you create that expression with your eyes? How should the shoulders be positioned? How does your breath move? If you were to move your body, how would you do that? Are your hands and fingers moving calmly and peacefully? Each part of the body has the potential to help or hinder the expressiveness of your music. It is one thing to recognize these nuances, but can you create them on demand? Practice making each facial expression, posture, and movement a part of your expressive vocabulary.

Just as you need to be specific in your intention, you need also to be specific in posture and movements. There are virtually infinite variations in a smile, or any other expression. The more closely you can align your body with your intended expression, the more effective your performance will be.

5) Breathe expressively. The way you breathe can change your heart rate, blood pressure, and the way you think and feel. Obviously the way you blow air through your instrument shapes the music you make, but the way you inhale can also enormously influence your music. The way you take in a breath can change your mood, outlook, and the music you are about to make.

Take in a breath in a manner that reflects the way you want to use it. If you want to play a powerfully accented entrance, take in a powerful, deep, quick breath. If you want to play a slow and delicate entrance, take in a slow, graceful breath. Taking in a breath is not just about getting enough air; it is an opportunity to align yourself with the music you are about to play.

6) Video-record your practice and performance. Do your facial expressions line up with the expressions in your music? Do your movements enhance or detract from your performance? Are you actually doing what you think you are doing?

Again, be as specific as possible. Every time you record yourself, play with a clear intention (see #3.) Then when you review the recording, determine how successful you were. Determine which changes can be made to improve the performance, and repeat the process of recording and reviewing.



In Performance:

7) Calm your nerves. If you are nervous before a performance, you might look like it. You might have tension in your forehead, a stiff posture, and shallow and rapid breathing. Relax your face (see #2), stretch out your posture, and breathe deeper and slower. These changes on the outside will help your feelings on the inside.

8) Practice the power poses described by Amy Cuddy. The expansive, bold poses Ms. Cuddy describes are a fantastic way to increase your feeling of confidence. Using them especially before performances can help you play with more confidence and conviction.

9) Play for the audience. Your posture, movements, and facial expressions have a profound impact on how the audience will experience your performance. If your body is not in alignment with the music you are attempting to create, the audience’s experience is diminished. If your body is in alignment with your music, then your musical message will be better communicated to the audience.