The Oppositional Principle in Music, Part 1: Louis Armstrong

Ben Ratliff, a journalist with the New York Times, recently blogged about this video clip of a young Louis Amsrong, performing in Denmark in 1933. Ratliff invites his readers to watch how Armstrong moved to the music, "making his body part of the performance." What's remarkable about the performance, however, is Amstrong's dual personality. As a communicator and an entertainer, he moves, dances, makes faces, and clowns around in a very amusing manner. But when he starts playing the trumpet, he completely stops all extraneous movements! He stands upright and still, and other than those movements that are necessary to play the trumpet (lips, fingers, lungs, and so on), he moves minimally and almost invisibly. He doesn't move to the music; rather, the music itself moves, from him (or maybe even through him) to the audience. Ratliff also remarks on how the other musicians in the band tap their feet to the beat of the music. While it's true that some of them tap almost frenetically, their upper bodies are, like Amstrong's, at rest: vertical, still, and ready for movement but by no means moving.

I believe this is a vital oppositional principle: Make yourself firm and grounded as music passes through you, and the opposition between your firmness and the music's mobility will create a great deal of dynamic energy, much to your listeners' benefit. Move to the music as you play or sing, however, and you risk dispersing the power of music to the winds. And you know what? It's not only your listeners who'll suffer!

Many master musicians remain still when they play and sing. Watch this space for further examples and a thorough discussion of this most important of principles.