Beat, body language and speaking – the art of Conducting

By Ehrenfellnermusic (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

I have been involved in conducting a number of ensembles over the previous few years, and to some extent this has taken over from my own playing.  With a young family it has been tricky to always fit both playing and conducting in.  However, over the last weekend I was very fortunate to be invited to play with the Milton Keynes Sinfonia in a concert that contained Elgar’s Overture In the South, Walton’s Viola Concerto and Vaughan-Williams fantastic Symphony No. 2 (A London Symphony).  I hadn’t had the opportunity to play with the orchestra for some time and I enjoyed a very interesting programme with an orchestra that has clearly improved a great deal since the last time I performed with them.

During the rehearsal in the afternoon however, it became really clear why this improvement had taken place and how this transformation had come about.

The first thing I noticed is that David Knight (the orchestra’s conductor) let the orchestra get on with what they were supposed to do, and directed mood, feeling and intention.  Quite a tricky thing to do sometimes and requires a great deal of trust.  As it was a rehearsal on the afternoon of the concert, I would expect the opportunity to play through the music with little chat about things, but the thing that was most noticeable was that the comments made by David Knight were clear, focused and gave a real indication of the type of sound that he wanted.  The beat wasn’t necessarily always clear (and this will of course depend on how the beat is interpreted by the individual musicians from their own viewpoint) but to be honest it wasn’t necessary for it to be clear (or metronomic) as musicians are more than capable of counting themselves.  Far more important was the way in which the conducting conveyed the mood – and this was always clear.

Vaughan Williams’ Second Symphony conveys a vast array of mood, ideas and emotions and performing this vast work requires a great deal of tempi change, dynamic control and rubato.  In fact, a great deal of information and thought to get across to a wide range of musicians and varying personalities.

This led me to thinking more about conducting and the way in which I convey my own thoughts or intentions and how effective this actually is.  It has made me consider how different conductors approach different ensembles and the expectations of the musicians involved.  While some of the differences come down to convention and have solid musical reasons, there are some fairly important techniques that would either make things easier or more difficult for the musicians.

I think the first, and possibly most important thing, I considered about my own conducting after this concert was the need to always aim to remember the viewpoint of the performer and the significance of the movements I make.  As Peter Stark once said “Never forget, it’s the players who play the notes”

Attribution: West Keal Road, Old Bolingbroke to David Hitchborne

I grew up within the brass band tradition and am fairly used to seeing conducting done with both hands mirroring each other.  This seems a fairly standard approach within the brass bands I have worked with to some extent.  This probably comes from the need for clarity and making the beat easy to see for marching purposes.

Within orchestral playing this is very often not the case at all, and the right hand is used for showing a pulse with the left hand showing expression.

In choral conducting, I am fairly used to seeing conductors use a mixture of mirroring and then expression in one hand with pulse in the other.  Generally speaking (unless an orchestra is involved) most of the choral conducting I have seen is done without a baton.  Within an orchestra many conductors will use a baton to extend the hand and provide a clear visual signal, however there are many prominent conductors that prefer not to use a baton such as Gergiev or Mark Elder for example.

There are a number of standard patterns for 4, 3, 2, 6 or irregular beats and this is usually a fairly consistent factor.  This is the nuts and bolts of conducting, and the rest is what Peter Stark refers to as the poetry.  The three main ways that a conductor has available to communicate their intention is through baton or conducting technique, body language and talking.

Although there are differences in approach, there are a number of common elements that make a conductor clear, easy to work with, follow and understand.

For example:

  1. Aim to put your stand low enough so that people can see your beating pattern and that it will not get in the way
  2. Make eye contact with the players – even if they are not looking at you!
  3. Know the music, and learn to listen to each individual part.  Approach pauses, tempo change etc in a way that is clear and easy to understand, and explain how you intend to approach these elements when required
  4. Avoid repeating music over and over without giving feedback or specific comments
  5. Explain the meaning and intention of the music – describe how you want it to be played as clearly and as succinctly as possible
  6. Explain how the different parts relate to each other, if melodies are passed between instruments and explain harmonic direction
  7. When you stop the group, give concise and direct feedback without long pauses or gaps.  The people in front of you have come to play after all!
  8. When rehearsing different sections of the group, make sure that there are not long sustained gaps between playing for other sections in the group
  9. After rehearsing a section, always practice the transition from the previous section to what has been rehearsed.  Often referred to as sorting out the corners – this is generally where lots of problems can occur
  10. Try not to continue singing the melody for sustained amounts of time whilst the group is playing.  Not only is it off-putting for those close to you, it can quite often grate on and annoy those in the immediate vicinity!

I think that the most important thing I have possibly begun to consider much more carefully is something that I have always known but not always clearly shown.  As Jerry and Henry Nowak accurately coined in their 2002 book

Conduct the music, not the musicians

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