Mind Tools: Applications and Solutions


What to Think About When You Conduct:
Perception, Language, and Musical Communication
Part 4 (of 4)
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Lee Humphries


Gesture, Troubleshooting, Logic

Physical Gesture

The baton can be more articulate than the mouth.  You'll save a lot of rehearsal time if you can clearly show the musicians what you want as they are playing.

What the baton communicates.  Your beat pattern ought to be a visual analog of the music's structure.  Not only should it convey the pulse, tempo, and meter.  But it also should show each unit of expression and detail its organization.

A unit of expression is a time-packet of emotion.  The conducting gesture tells the ensemble about the unit's: (1) duration, (2) loudness, (3) rhythmic organization (i.e., whether the grouping is beginning-, middle-, or end-accented), (4) articulation, (5) continuation into (or separation from) the next unit, and (6) vitality—whether its energy is steady, increasing, peaking, or subsiding.

Each unit of expression is different from the next.  As you conduct, you should depict these musical differences by making analogous visual differences in your beat pattern.  If you do this, the differences in your gesture from moment-to-moment will visually mark the corresponding musical differences, thus calling the ensemble's attention to them.

How the baton communicates.  You create gestural differences by manipulating visual variables.  The most important are: the distance the baton travels within each beat, the speed at which it travels, and the path of its motion.

The distance traveled implies the general level of loudness.  The farther the baton travels during a beat, the greater the volume it indicates.  When the baton travels an increasingly longer distance in each beat of a series, it suggests a crescendo.  When it does the opposite, it suggests a decrescendo.

The baton can be at rest or in motion.  If moving, its speed can be constant, accelerating, or decelerating.  It can change directions along an angle or a curve.  Changes in the baton's speed—combined with changes in its path—convey a wealth of musical detail.

When you clearly stop the baton at each beat, you encourage a detached articulation.  If your baton rebounds along a sharp angle and stops suddenly, it implies that the notes end starkly; if it rebounds along a U-shaped curve and stops gradually, it implies that the notes end with a tapered dynamic.

When you interrupt the baton's flow by briefly halting it within an otherwise continuous series of beats, the hesitation will visually separate the material that precedes the halt from the material that follows it.

You can point out the rhythmic groupings within a larger musical structure by subtly decelerating and then accelerating the baton.  The cusp between the deceleration and the acceleration visually marks the boundary between two groupings.  (Understand that this is not a change in the tempo!  Each beat still has the same duration.  What is fluctuating is the speed of the baton as it travels across the time frame of the beat.)

The beginning-, middle-, or end-accented organization of each rhythmic grouping is shown by varying the beat's size and acceleration to reflect the stressed or unstressed function of the note(s) played therein.  The farther the baton travels and the more it accelerates, the greater the stress it implies.

Dramatic line comes about by creating dynamic continuity between the stressed notes of successive rhythmic groupings.  If the dynamic difference between successive stressed notes is too great or too little, the line will be broken.  To show the dramatic line, the energy change from stress point to stress point should be mirrored by corresponding visual changes in your beat pattern.

It is sometimes said that the beat seen in the conductor's pattern must anticipate the beat heard from the ensemble, otherwise the ensemble won't have time to react.  This is not true when you know where you are headed musically and have good control of the baton.  Then, the players—by seeing the baton's present speed, rate of change, and path curvature—can predict where, when, and how the baton will end up; and they can play accordingly.  We accurately make such judgments all the time when we drive in freeway traffic.

Cues.  Cues serve not only a musical function, but a social one as well.  Musically, of course, they insure accurate entrances and convey important expressive information.  Socially, they link you with the players.  When you cue a player you are acknowledging that player's musical role and confirming its importance.  You build musical rapport with players by paying individual attention to them as you conduct.

Other gestures.  Many problems of instrumental technique can be traced to one or more of these physical causes:

•       changing directions along an angular path, instead of a curved path;

•       failing to overcome the inertia of the body before overcoming the inertia of the instrument;

•       initiating motion with the fingers instead of the upper arm; and

•       spending more of a note's duration pushing into the fingerboard (or keybed, etc.) than withdrawing from it.

Sometimes you can overcome these causes nonverbally by making subtle body motions as you conduct.  For instance, it's harder for a cellist to continue producing a brittle-sounding, finger-driven pizzicato, when s/he sees at each pizzicato your upper arm drawing your fixed-but-passive fingers across some imaginary string.  We have a natural inclination to synchronize our body movements to repetitive structures going on about us in the environment.  That is what is happening when people unconsciously tap their feet to music.



The difficulty of a passage is partly determined by its novelty to the players.  An ensemble can get tripped up in a work when it encounters a spot that violates the work's previous compositional norms.  These anomalous musical features are significant differences.  They can't be anticipated from what has gone on previously, and their sudden appearance in the score disorients the players, who have to search out a new mental framework to get back on track.  Look in the score for places where things change abruptly and drastically: a simultaneous change in the tempo and the note value used to represent the beat, an extended syncopation that befuddles the ensemble's perception of the beat, an unusual playing technique.

Equally disorienting are passages that contain a lot of changes over a short period of time: a different meter every measure, shifting groupings within the same meter (e.g., 7/8, where the organization goes from 2+2+3 to 3+2+2 to 2+3+2), a flurry of rapidly changing accidentals, quick pointallistic entrances and exits involving a number of instruments.

Since the ensemble is likely to break down when it first encounters such passages, you'll save time by dealing with them before you try a run-through of the piece.



Real logic.  You can make the rehearsal more effective by addressing musical problems in logical order.  Players have to overcome the gross difficulties before they can concentrate on the subtle ones.  You can't effectively deal with dynamic nuance or intonation when the musicians are still scrambling to find the notes.

Likewise, give information to the players in the order they will use it.  For instance, when you direct players to a place in the score, say something like this: "Go to rehearsal letter C; count back four measures; find beat three."  They can't find beat three, until they've found the measure it is in.  And they can't find the measure until they've found the rehearsal letter.  (Also, put the verb at the beginning of the clause; it makes your instruction easier to understand.)

Implied logic.  Every time you redirect the players' attention to a new musical task you tire them a little bit.  That's because it takes more emotional energy to set up a new mental framework than to maintain an existing one.

You can minimize fatigue by carefully framing what you say so that the ensemble will perceive your later instructions as a logical continuation of what has been going on—not as an interruption.  For example, avoid stopping the ensemble unexpectedly.  Warn them ahead of time: "We'll play from letter E to letter F and then stop."  That way the stop won't be jarring; they'll know when and where it is coming.

More generally, it's a good idea to embed clues about the future into statements about the present: "Before we go on to Movement 3, let's play this passage a couple of times more."  Now when they've finished the two playings, going on to Movement 3 will seem logical.  Everyone will be expecting it, so they won't have to reorient themselves.

Subtleties like these can make the difference between a pleasant rehearsal and a frustrating one.

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