By Siu-Lan Tan
Sometimes you think you can explain something, and then it turns out you really can’t. This remarkable video was posted last year but only went viral in the US in the last few weeks, approaching 5 million hits in a short time. When I first saw it, I was immediately enchanted.
Dubbed by the press as ‘the Mini Maestro’ (although to be correct, she would be a maestra), the video shows little Lara Glozou with a church choir in Kyrgyzstan. She’s the young daughter of one of the choir members and often attends rehearsal.
After watching a few times, I thought I knew what might be happening. This must be an observant child who’s mirroring the actions of a conductor standing in front of the choir, interspersed with a little improvisation of her own. I thought she was a remarkable imitator, not just able to capture the conductor’s motions, but also the emotions.
But then I found another video. It shows the choir rehearsing the same song from another angle, allowing us to see the conductor’s motions of the right hand while Lara is gesturing expressively in the far right corner by the piano.
I was amazed to see that the conductor is not making the same kinds of motions as Lara after all. Even though the conductor’s gestures may be outlining the regularity of the beat and phrasing, many of Lara’s gestures and body movements—the forward lean, the hand to the chest, the sway of the body, and the dips and turns of the head—seem to be her own.
To be fair, Lara is not really “conducting.” If she were directing, her motions would come slightly before the events in the music, in anticipation of them in order to cue the choir. Her movements are more like an expression of the music. However, as an expression or sensitive interpretation of the music, I find her gestures to be remarkable. Truly extraordinary. For instance, her gestures are fewer and more prolonged during the female solo up to 0:21 (on the first video). They are a series of poses. But at 0:22 when the choir comes in, she immediately shifts to grand sweeping gestures. The variety of shapes that she forms with her hands alone express a rainbow of emotions and tone colors.
I am in awe of this little girl’s ability not only to reflect peaks and valleys in the melody of the music, and momentum of the phrases, but also the shape of the sound. For the last note of the song, she curves her left and right hands into the widest arcs for a broad final tone — a lion’s roar — rather than the kind of ending that gradually fades away.
This small child has had so little time on earth to experience falling in love, the sting of heartbreak, betrayal, triumph, grief, pain, and the rest of the great emotional topography of life. How is she able to convey the semblance of emotional depth and angst? Where is she getting her musical sensitivity? Do some young children just have an old soul?
As a former music major, I took Conducting 101. My spine was rigid, my gestures were tiny and angular. As a music student in my 20s, I had none of the intensity and theatrical weight of this little girl. More recently, I have written about how infants begin to spontaneously respond to music in bodily ways, nodding their heads and waving arms to rhythmic music once they are able to sit freely at about six months. Later, bobbing up and down with knee-bends, and spinning around in circles to music between one and two years, after they become mobile.
However, they do so for only short bursts, and most of the movements of two- and three-year-old children don’t really match the music in time (Moog, 1976; Malbrán, 2000). Although Lara is not always synchronized with the music, her deep expressive gestures capture the musical events in a broad way, even anticipating some musical moments, as she is familiar with this piece.
Little is known about young children’s interpretation of music. In one of the few studies in this area, Boone & Cunningham (2001) showed that four-year-olds can move a flexible teddy bear in dance-like fashion, to express emotion in music through movement. However the musical emotions they recognized and expressed were basic emotions (such as happiness, or sadness, or anger). What we seem to observe in Lara is much more nuanced. How is she able to capture this depth in music?
I spoke with a grown-up maestro that I greatly admire, Andrew Koehler, Music Director of the Kalamazoo Philharmonia. He said, “It’s really astonishing. Lara moves in a way that shows that she recognizes agogic accents” (longer durations of tones, which give natural stress to music). She often reflects this with larger, more expansive motions of her arms that mark those accents.
Her gestures also capture finer details. At 0:45 to 0:47 in the first video, Koehler points out how a higher tone of greater tension resolves to a lower tone of lower tension. The toddler reflects this: “Lara leans into the music, her right hand pushing into it with a claw-like motion [capturing high tone and high tension in the music]. Then both left and right arms make downward motions as her posture goes back to an upright position again [lower tone, lower tension].”
And then there’s Jonathan Okseniuk. Here he is at three years old, appearing to ‘conduct’ a recording of the last movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in his home in Mesa, Arizona.
Even if he appears to be getting some coaxing off camera, this is a remarkable three-year-old.
Here is Jonathan again at age four, conducting a live orchestra in a rousing rendition of Khachaturian’s ‘Sabre Dance’. “This is a more challenging arena,” explains Koehler, “which would require Jonathan to anticipate what will happen in the music as opposed to simply responding to it.”
There are many other videos of Jonathan on the web, conducting Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, and Strauss with different orchestras.
How an understanding of music blooms so early in some young ones astonishes me. This mini-maestra’s sensitive expression of music and mini-maestro’s early conducting chops have left me perplexed.
Siu-Lan Tan is Associate Professor of Psychology at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, USA. She is primary editor of The Psychology of Music in Multimedia (Oxford University Press 2013), the first book consolidating the research on the role of music in film, television, video games, and computers. A version of this article also appears on Psychology Today. Siu-Lan Tan also has her own blog, What Shapes Film? Read her previous blog posts.