The pulse: a key aspect of conducting technique and the only real one that allows us to control the orchestra.
All the conducting technique and conducting tips shown in all the episodes of Conducting Pills are derived strictly from the music: when music creates the technique it cannot be otherwise. There are, however, some technical aspects that are common ground to all music you will conduct. One of them is the different types of strokes you have at your disposal.
Fundamentally, baton strokes are of 2 kinds:
- Straight-line strokes (vertical, horizontal, and diagonal)
- Curved line strokes (half or fully curved)
In any of these strokes, the initiating factor is always one: the pulse. Without it, no stroke will work.
The pulse is emphasized technically by a click of the wrist: a vertical or horizontal motion initiating the baton movement.
Here’s how to make a pulse. For a vertical stroke, make an upward-downward motion of the wrist making sure your rebound ends where the motion began, as if you were knocking on a door, placed on a horizontal surface.
The same movement can be transferred on the horizontal level: a quick right-left motion of the wrist. This horizontal motion should be only used for horizontal strokes. Using it in vertical strokes would cause a break in the flow of the line. The only way this movement will work is if you are looking at the top of your hand.
This quick motion is a fundamental building block of conducting technique and learning how to control this means learning how to control the orchestra.
Once you feel comfortable with these motions, practice continuing the stroke. In a vertical stroke, continue the movement upwards after the rebound. In a horizontal movement, drop the rebound and use the direction of the wrist to initiate the motion
One step forward: try practicing them in a pattern. Use a metronome, start slow and increase the speed gradually. Change pattern: 2-3-4 and 6.
Practicing conducting, at least in its technical aspect, is just like practicing any other instrument: teach your body the motions it needs to do until they become a second nature and you don’t have to think about them any longer.
In both the vertical and the horizontal gestures you should feel the resistance to your motion. Think of it as if you were moving your arm in water: that’s how you carry the sound and connect to the sound of the orchestra.
You may have already heard this concept in the common saying “a conductor’s gestures should imitate the movement of the bow on the strings“.
These “click” motions are used in all tempi. They are particularly useful to show staccato notes, or to be very clear in mixed meters and different rhythmical figures. Or to make a curve stroke clear.
The baton is an extension of the conductor’s arm: when properly used, it helps a conductor gain clarity in showing and articulating the music and leading the players.
Half-curved or fully curved strokes are a great addition to your arsenal of gestures. But in order to be clear for the players, they must have a pulsing point. Without a clear pulsing point nobody would understand anything. But if you add a pulse all of a sudden the players have a point of reference and the gesture becomes unmistakable.
What can they be used for? To show legato passages or passages that begin with a legato marking and end with a short note.
The intensity of the pulse should be kept under control and not overused, especially in legato passages, as it can easily chop the line.
That’s why the intensity of a click can vary and sometimes be completely dropped. And that’s why it’s also a good idea to practice sharper and softer versions of the same pulse.
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