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The Physicality of Conducting / 7 March 2016

A black and white photograph of composer and conductor James Rose, in profile, with his specially designed head baton attached to his glasses. He is set against a brick wall

James Rose with his specially designed head baton

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Whilst at the Royal Academy of Music, I have learnt many things. Whilst watching a conducting student practicing and being taught by Sian Edwards (RA Head of Conducting), you’ll often see the other conducting students moving their hands and or batons in the air internalising the instruction and music. At first, I was hesitant to join with the worry of looking crazy when moving my head.  However, I soon overcame this nonsense paving the way for some real analysis and learning.

Almost all coaching Sian gives is to do with facial expressions, movements of the arms, or the angle of the baton at different times depending on the conductor’s musical intentions.  The facial expressions are no problem for me…well, no more of a problem than anyone else.  Baton angles and movements serve a challenge for the missing number of joints.  

When conducting using a baton held by a hand on an average length arm, there are around eighteen joints to be manipulated and used to create movement:
1.    Shoulder (Glenohumeral Joint facilitating seven types of movement)
2.    Elbow (facilitating four types of movement)
3.    Wrist (condyloid synovial joint facilitating five types of movements)
4.    ‘Lower Knuckles’ (metacarpals…the thumb facilitating five types of movements and the remaining four ‘glide.’
5.    ‘Mid Knuckles’ (metacarpals phalangeal joints…five of them facilitating four types of movements)
6.    ‘Top Knuckles’ (interphalangeal joints – proximal and distal both of which facilitate two movements)

This facilitates approximately twenty-seven different movements being available for you to use in order to manipulate the baton or hand.  In my case, I have up to twelve movements available to me instead of twenty-seven – six from my neck and six from the waist. From a simplistic and a pessimistic point-of-view, mathematically, conducting using the head is surely to fail.  However, this is not so because the eyes and facial indications compensate for the lack of movement.  

Upper-body stretches can also help by improving core strength and flexibility.  The intention is to refine and isolate different movements in my neck, back, and waist to achieve detail with ease.

So, I have developed a routine of stretching my upper body and neck to achieve maximum subtlety:
Lean forward in the wheelchair from the waist aiming to touch.  Slowly bend forward during a count of five.  Then aim to touch your toes for another count of five before coming back up slowly.

Stretch left arm up and over to right side and let the upper body follow.  I do this slowly during the count of five.  Then, in the exact same manner, I come back to the centre.

Stretch right arm up and over to left side and let the upper body follow count of five.
Sit up straight and push shoulders back count of five.
Sit up straight and tilt the head forward gently.

These exercises are specifically for me and I am not recommending them to anyone else.  I’ve listed a few videos which I have used as a reference. Enjoy!

  1. Wrist and Hand Joints - 3D Anatomy Tutorial
  2. Shoulder Joint - Glenohumeral Joint - 3D Anatomy Tutorial
  3. Elbow Joint - 3D Anatomy Tutorial
  4. Cervical Activities Booklet The Six Movements of the Neck

You can follow my twitter account @jamesrosetweets where I’ll be posting updates on the progress in the run up to and during the Conducting Development Week in week starting Monday 6th May.  Further details on the project can be found at 

Keywords: classical music,conducting


James Rose

23 March 2016

Hi Deborah,

Firstly, thanks so much for your message. It was so nice to read your thoughts and I'm glad you are getting something from my ramblings! Having so many people doubt the project as well as other things in my life, I've just learned to ignore them and go with my gut feeling.  Any opinion is formed on the past experiences of the individual giving it., and nothing else. Your artwork is amazing btw!

James Rose

22 March 2016

Hi Jonathan, great hearing from you. Thanks for commenting. I do remember you and the crowded Barbican. Ah, mems! How are you doing? It was fun researching the article! Are you based at the London office? I'm going to Drake tonight, actually for DMLab. Hopefully see you around.

Jonathan Westrup

8 March 2016

Hi James,

I really enjoyed the blog, I had little idea about conducting and the number of movements etc! We last met at the Expo a few years back ( a very noisy session due to lack of sound proofing at the Barbican) It's great to be able to follow your progress on the course; hope to meet again in the future. Jonathan Westrup (Drake Music)

Deborah Caulfield

8 March 2016

James, I'm enjoying your blog for the insight into learning to conduct and the challenges this brings.

I also like the way you are driven by your passion to create and learn, not just regarding your chosen practice, but your body too, which you clearly expect to get the most out of.

Thank you for reminding me about upper body stretching and strengthening exercises. I'm very bad at remembering to do these regularly, even though I know they help me to have the strength when I need it.

I have a tendency to detach myself from my body, wishing it wasn't there, seeing it as a drag. Whereas, what you have shown is that it's our main instrument, as it were, the thing that's going to get us to where and what we want. So it's better to honour and value what we can do with it, rather than regret what we can't.

Lastly, what I've got from your blog is the importance of following our interests and passions, and finding a way, regardless of what others might think and the challenges we face.