Expressive Gesticulation: an excerpt from The Integrated String Player

Pedro de Alcantara

Most people move their hands and arms as they talk—that is, they gesticulate. As a musician, you spend hours every day gesticulating, since playing is “gesticulation that makes sounds.” Gesticulation tends to happen outside of conscious awareness, but you can bring it to the fore, practice it much as you’d practice any aspect of your coordination, and, over time, internalize these skills.

Sometimes people gesticulate as they think, whether they’re in the middle of saying something or in silence, pondering a situation or trying to remember something. Gesticulation, in this case, is a thinker’s help.

Sometimes people don’t have all the words they need to express a thought or an emotion. They wave their arms and hands while talking to complete the discourse, compensating for the lack of vocabulary, or the lack of coherence, or the lack of valid arguments. In this case, gesticulation compensates for a handicap.

Sometimes people make the same gesture repeatedly, regardless of what they are saying. Then the gesture isn’t showing a specific word, thought, or emotion; it’s closer to a tic.

Sometimes people use chopping rhythmic motions, in which the gestures show the stresses and emphases of the discourse. These gestures work as a sort of metronome.

Sometimes the gestures accompany the discourse, showing in space some of the qualities that the words are expressing. You say, “It was enormous,” and you spread your hands and arms wide apart. Many words can be illustrated by a parallel gesture: huge, small, tight, loose, agitated, calm, held, tender . . .

Sometimes you use your hands to caress the listener’s eyes, making friendly gestures that don’t accompany or reflect the discourse word by word. Then your gesticulation isn’t about what you’re saying, but about whom you’re addressing.

Your gestures can show mathematical and architectural constructions: lines, curves, grids of intertwined fingers, lists with precise numbers of items. They can show types of energy: pointy, fluid, slow, angular, swirling, falling, rising. They can show verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and entire expressions: “He had a round face with a big nose.” “It was the worst mess.” “There I was, flying like a bird.” “That’s a no-no, honey.”

Your expressive gesticulation can say everything if you so wish. Practice it, then translate it into playing techniques.

1. Say, sing, chant, or scat a few sounds, moving one or both hands up in the air to choreograph what you’re saying. Choreograph the accent; choreograph the emotion; choreograph the energy; choreograph the personality of what you’re saying. Gesticulate using arms and hands alone, not tightening your shoulders, not nodding with your head and neck. Or go haywire and move every body part to choreograph your little song. You can move your body slowly and gesticulate quickly, or vice versa.

2. Gesticulate in silence. Gesticulate while breathing, and create (through the imagination or other means) a connection between the gesture and the breath. Open your arms in front of you to breathe in, and fold them across your chest as you breathe out. Is the breath leading the movement, or is the movement drawing the breath out? Both are perhaps true.

3. Sing a short note and move your arm in space, as if playing air cello. The art consists in coordinating the sound and the gesture in such a way that they become one: not two separate events coinciding in time but a single event with these two inseparable dimensions. The gesture is the speech. Do the same gesture (opening your arms, for instance) in various sizes or dynamics: tiny, small, medium, large, humongous. Do it in many speeds: slow, moderate, fast, presto. Mix and match the dynamics and tempi. The rhythm can be metronomic or not, with rubato or not, with fermatas or not, with sudden changes in dynamics or not.

4. Gesticulation is a bridge between the somewhat formless energies of emotions and precise gestures aiming to express precise thoughts, words, and sounds. When the time comes to transform gesticulation into bow strokes musical phrases, it’s probably better not to be too literal-minded. You don’t need to make a big gesture to produce a big sound, for instance. More generally, you don’t need to gesticulate the precise bow stroke you’re looking for; it’s enough that the bow stroke is born of your gesticulating energies and emotions.

5. Hold your bow. Say a few emphatic words, gesticulating emphatically at the same time. Immediately follow it with a few emphatic notes played at the cello. This is the basic idea, which you can vary in a thousand ways. Sing the beginning of a Brahms sonata, while gesticulating expressively. Then play the phrase in question. Play-act a distracted professor pointing (with the bow) at formulas written an imaginary whiteboard. Then play a fuzzy tune on the fiddle. With a low, booming voice, welcome the new members of your inclusive club; open your arms to indicate how welcome they are; then play a booming, welcoming open string at the violin. Use it to start one of those luscious nineteenth-century concertos all violinists study in college.

©2019, Pedro de Alcantara