A musical upbeat does wonders. It establishes mood. It establishes tempo. It summons our energies, those of an orchestra, a choir, an ensemble, or a soloist. It demands continuation; it awakens expectation. It brings everyone together in concert. There is even a theory of music-making based upon it called, not surprisingly, Auftakt Theorie, Upbeat Theory. It holds that successive upbeats structure the unfolding of music, each note a question to another, each phrase, each musical period, each section, each movement, the entire piece, if you will, a question to the next, an unfolding that never fully unfolds. Downbeats? What are they good for? Absolutely nothing. Well, almost nothing. They’re there for synchronization. They militarize movement. When overly emphasized, downbeats are the death of music. Upbeats flow; downbeats march. If we need some of each, we need far more of the former, far more of the upbeat, than of the latter.
The great Civil War General of the South, Stonewall Jackson, conducted himself admirably. On horseback, he held his right hand aloft in front of him. He believed that it balanced the flow of his blood. Perhaps he was a literalist, living in imitation of the scripture: “The right hand of the Lord is exalted.” Be that as it may, a hand held aloft, right or left, is a hieroglyph of up.
I once got a call from a well-known soprano who was singing with the Vienna Staatsoper. She asked, “Guess what they are asking me to do as I sing my high notes?” I had a hunch and said, they’re asking you to raise both hands to your side with your palms upturned. Yes, she said, and just how did you know that? I confessed I was familiar with the work of a certain German professor – very popular at the time, perhaps more so now – whose studies had concluded that raising the hands with palms upturned, stimulates the neural centers of the brain that are associated with inspiration. In short, we might say, lifting up our hands is uplifting. It gives us a bit of courage and a small weapon in the arsenal of defending our uprightness.
To allow a hand to rise in front of you, turned inwardly I’m thinking, is to conduct your self. If your shoulders tend to round toward the front, if your arms tend to weigh on your shoulders, an uplifted hand – wrist, elbow, shoulder freeing – will help undo that depressed state. It will change your outlook and might even change your breathing. When you play the piano one hand alone, when you sit at your desk, or in an audience, let one free hand conduct you up, subtly in a performance, unless you really fancy being ushered out. It may even help a bit to point up with the index finger, taking a hint from so many of Da Vinci’s religious subjects. Pointing up, according to Art Historian, Lord Kenneth Clark, exhibits “the rising rhythm of the interrogative.” We can make every note, every moment, a question to the next rather than a consolidation, that is, a con-solid-ation. What a word. The upbeat can be an antidote to musical and personal solidity and stolidity.
You may want to do a bit more. With one hand in front of you, at a level just below the point where the true ribs insert into the sternum, connect your thumb – more mentally than physically – with your torso. Freeing your wrist let the wrist turn and deliver a pulse of up – on-off-on – to the front of your torso, to the muscle and tendon and flesh beneath. What do you notice? Have you found a counterpart of down, of depression? Now if you want to find a champion of your uprightness, get thee to a teacher of the Alexander Technique. He or she is living a life-long dedication to just such a practice. What will you learn there? You’ll learn to live in the upbeat, in the becoming, in the along, to live as a hieroglyph of up. Let me tell you, insomuch as I manifest this day to day, it is delightful.