Campus News

Musical movement

Collaboration between engineering, music faculty helps turn art of conducting into a science

Even when starting at the very basic tempo of 92 beats per minute, quantifying the line between art and craft can be very tough.

David Romines, associate director of bands in UGA’s Hugh Hodgson School of Music, walks this line with an array of budding conductors, exploring their role in an ensemble and searching for useful commonalities of movement that may not be easily detectable through observation.

“At the beginning, it’s all very precise and measured, then the next thing you do is get rid of the metronome and start to think musically,” he said, confidently abreast of the paradox. “We know which gestures work for conductors, and we’re always looking for better ways to explain it to students.”

To UGA engineering professor Tim Foutz, the search for a better way was all about the biomechanics of conducting—plus it offered a new area for collaboration.
“I don’t know much about music, but I thought we might be able to open up some new areas in conducting—and engineering,” Foutz said about what has turned into a research and teaching project between himself and Romines.

With seed funds from the Faculty of Engineering and equipment from the College of Veterinary Medicine, the two have established a laboratory for conducting students. Envisioned to eventually serve students as a tool for self-analysis, the lab is enabling Romines and Foutz to begin to isolate and define many basic conducting techniques by using a motion capture system to track the movements of students—and accomplished conductors—at 120 frames per second.

The two are building a body of research data on rates of acceleration, amplitude, depth and consistency between beats of accomplished conductors to make available to students for comparison. Conducting gestures typically evaluated by the student on videotape or in front of a mirror are being translated into graphs and charts so that students can see exactly how they are moving and where their movements might dip or falter.

“When we lay the graphs on top of one another, we’re not as interested in what’s different as we are in the similarities,” Romines said, noting the difficulty in knowing what to measure and then what to look for. “It is of particular interest when data generated by professional conductors are compared with graduate and beginning conducting students.”

Sixty years ago, musical conducting was not considered a traditional area of instruction, as many felt great conductors were simply born. In subsequent decades, conducting has become an area of much more pedagogical activity. Romines received valuable initial assistance from Teresa Nakra of the College of New Jersey, drawing on her experience in the marriage of technology with artistic endeavors. She has ventured to wire the brains of Boston symphony members to monitor what happens during solos and measure brain waves when different sections of the orchestra come together or drop out. Another colleague, Mary Hill, has set up a conducting laboratory at Arizona State University and shared technical savvy and results with the UGA faculty.

“Some of what we’re doing is duplication of previous studies. However, since this type of analysis is still new to the profession duplication is important,” said Romines, explaining that it brings an extra layer of validity to the scholarship aspect. Romines and Foutz blend this repetition with a new layer of research by bringing in and trying to determine common traits and motion among experienced conductors.

What brought music and engineering faculty members together is the third part of the project that is as particular to the collaborative atmosphere at UGA as its constituent parts.

Senior faculty in positions of influence and mentoring for their junior colleagues continue to yield impressive results.

The link between Romines and Foutz was Sylvia Hutchison, retired associate dean of the College of Education, in her emerita role as a coordinator of the Peer Consulting Program located in the Center for Teaching and Learning. Her passion for helping her peers and students inside and beyond the classroom has made Hutchison an invaluable asset, with a knowledge of the university that is outdone only by her love and appreciation for learning.

“Engineering here is very open to reaching beyond its boundaries, and it’s a tribute to the leadership that fosters this kind of environment,” she said. “This project is the nicest combination of what you think is most important in higher education—unencumbered learning, free of fear or vulnerability, just trying to understand the issue better. It’s very exciting.”

Of the seemingly improbable but obvious collaboration between engineering and music, Romines is no less salutary.

“It all goes back to the idea that all knowledge is related,” he said. “As we teach conducting, we’re dealing with physiology and engineering issues on a daily basis. Understanding the extent of these interrelationships can only prove beneficial to our students.”