How do virtuosos actually play?

As one half of the partnership leading the GeAcMus chair, Fabrice Marandola is the representative for both percussion instruments and humanities. For several years, he has been working on instrumental gestures, looking at decrypting what characterizes expert musicians in particular.

As senior co-lecturer of the GeAcMus chair alongside Patricio de la Cuadra (read “The promise of interdisciplinarity”), Fabrice Marandola is a percussionist who graduated from the Conservatoire national supérieur de musique et de danse in Paris and a PhD in ethnomusicology; his thesis, granted by Paris-Sorbonne University in 2003, looked at the vocal polyphonies of Bedzan Pygmies in Cameroon. Since 2005, he has been a professor of percussion and contemporary music at Montreal’s McGill University. For five years, he has also been an associate director at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media (CRMMT), a Canadian institute equivalent to the French Ircam institute, where he was in charge of artistic research.


Recording movements in the laboratory and in situ

In Montreal, he has already been working on the subject area at the heart of the GeAcMus program: “In my work as a professor and musician, I have to ask myself about instrumental gestures and I do so with a basic question: How do virtuosos actually play? How and why do the instrumental gestures of a virtuoso differ from those of a percussionist not performing at this level?”

In particular, he coordinates the work conducted on drums, lutes and harps for this chair, which has given him the opportunity to further these investigations greatly by extending this research to other instruments, as well as to music of oral traditions, and by benefitting from the expertise of biomechanical experts from the University of Technology of Compiègne, who are developing protocols for the GeAcMus program to record musicians’ movements.

“The UTC is equipped with an infrared camera system that enables it to recreate an individual’s movements in 3D and to measure their speed, amplitude, power and so on. We are therefore making recordings in the laboratory, particularly with musicians from the Pôle supérieur d’enseignement artistique Paris Boulogne-Billancourt. However, the aim is also to carry out such measurements in concert scenarios and, for traditional music styles, in the field using lighter equipment.”


Studying two groups of percussionists from Cameroon

At the end of 2015, for the first time in over 10 years and to his great delight, Fabrice Marandola returned to the field for four weeks in Cameroon to study the instrumental gestures of two groups of xylophonists and drummers, including expert musicians and novices. One group was made up of Bedzan and Tikar Pygmies, two populations living side-by-side and who play the same type of xylophone on the trunk of banana trees. The other group is made up of instrumentalists of a different ethnicity, the Eton population, whose xylophones more closely resemble those used in the West.

In each group, he filmed the instrumentalists with three small cameras set up to provide complementary shots, which should enable biomechanical experts to recreate their instrumental gestures almost as if they were in 3D and, from this, to extract precise measurements on their playing position and the way they hold the drumsticks, the differences between their right and left hand, and more.

Furthermore, the musicians were equipped with glasses fitted with an eye tracker, a system that registers their eye movements as they play. The chair’s professor explains that, “By combining the data from the eye tracker and the three cameras, we should be able to understand how an instrumentalist anticipates the instrumental gestures they should make using their vision. This is fundamental in percussion, as it is all about aiming for small targets with drumsticks.”


Pioneering work

The same measurements will also be conducted on two groups of Western percussionists. The aim is to compare the gestures of expert musicians and novices within each group and also in the various groups among them. Fabrice Marandola highlights that, “Until now, there has never really been a quantitative and qualitative study on instrumental gestures in percussion, and none made in the field. So, we really are pioneers. This work should finally enable us to identify precisely what differentiates a virtuoso percussionist from a non-expert in terms of their gestures, my hypothesis being that there are many similarities among experts in various cultures.”

This approach is also completely new for plucked string instruments. The studies conducted on Western harpists by one of the chair’s partners, the Lutheries – Acoustique – Musique (Stringed Instruments – Acoustics – Music) team, for example, has shown that every instrumentalist has a special way of positioning their fingers on the strings before plucking them, a specificity that determines their musical signature. Biomechanical experts at UTC are, therefore, looking to devise a sensor system that the GeAcMus ethnomusicologists working on harps in Gabon and lutes in Iran and Central Asia will be able to take into the field to record the finger movements of instrumentalists.



What is the impact of this?

When finished, these different endeavors could really nurture instrumental education. Fabrice Marandola emphasizes that “If, for example, we identify recurring patterns in the hand/eye coordination of expert percussionists, this is a bridge we must cross in learning to play an instrument.” However, for the biomechanical experts at UTC who ordinarily tend to work more on musculoskeletal issues, having a better understanding of the movements made by instrumentalists may also enable them to prevent conditions that repetitive, highly-specialized gestures may cause in musicians and sportspeople alike.


Read the article GeAcMus provides a new approach to musicology



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