Different conductors, different strokes
One question that often comes up from audience members is: why do conductors’ gestures change so much from one conductor to another? Do you just improvise based on the music?
Unless you’re Leonard Bernstein the answer to this question should be, partially, no. Bernstein was known, to his own admittance, to never think about what he was going to do on stage, simply letting the music come out of his body. Other great conductors, like Carlos Kleiber, choreographed, partially consciously and partially spontaneously, their gestures. In both cases, they didn’t bother beating patterns but rather depicted the music.
But how do you approach something like that? Where do you start?
It’s a fascinating idea to be free of doing whatever you want but if you get wild and incomprehensible to the players it all becomes useless. The common denominator here is, once again, the music.
Music is a live thing but is the musician who sets the pulse and keeps it running. Obviously, since we’re all different, we can read and interpret the same piece of music in many different ways. Therefore, we need to able to articulate the music with different strokes.
If you’re a string player you can choose different bowings depending on what your thinking is of the music you’re playing and how you want to execute it. The very same is with conducting. You can choose different strokes depending on what you want the music to sound like.
In order to do that, you need to develop a vocabulary of gestures that reflects what’s on the score. The gestures must come from it: music creates the technique.
Once again: how?
Let’s dive right in.
Breaking conducting patterns: Visual Score Study
There is, in fact, a codified method: the visual score study. Simply put, a conductor can look at a score and immediately know what gesture(s) he/she should apply for the music he/she is conducting at any specific moment. This sounds quite clinical but the fact is that, like with any technique, it is, simply, a means to an end. It’s a set of tools that morphs along with the music and applied properly loses the innate dryness of every technique. Like a scale: playing scales is fundamental to the development of an instrumental technique but when they are applied in, let’s say, a solo concerto, they stop being a sterile exercise.
The topography of the score is an endless source of information, enabling the conductor to “assess the technical-physical demands of the score based on the visual impression of the printed page” .
This does NOT replace the normal study score that a conductor does for every score (like identifying the structure, the harmonies, singing the lines, and everything that normally goes into preparing a piece); rather it complements it.
Let’s tackle a few ways to effectively starting to lose a pattern.
One of my favorites: imagine a piano keyboard and flip it vertically; now imagine playing a scale on it: an upward scale will produce an upward movement, a downward scale, the opposite. This means that in a 4/4 bar, the downbeat is not necessarily down.
It can be immensely effective: for instance, in the already mentioned excerpt from Tchaikovsky symphony n.6, where registration can be alternated by the left and the right hand for the flute and the bassoon part:
Incidentally, if you’re conducting a singer, registration can also help with the intonation. It’s a subconscious thing and it does work.
You can apply registration pretty much anywhere you want to but, of course, longer lines make more sense. Here’s another example from Mahler symphony n.2:
In the highlighted section, the left hand can easily register the line, moving upward with the scale; the first beat of bar number 5 with then be up, and registering the line further into the second beat would bring the hand down, following the clear musical intention of the composer.
Different types of strokes
Baton strokes are the connecting movements between two points in space. They can be vertical, horizontal or diagonal, straight or curved. The most important thing is that they are clear.
Curved strokes add a great deal of variety to the conductor’s gestures. Once again, in order to be clear, the pulse – or the click – needs to be clear. Baton grip is essential or your wrist will be locked, thus preventing you from clicking and showing a clear pulse. They are perfect for showing a slur or a legato phrase.
Whether a stroke is straight or curved, it should also take into account the length and dynamic of the note: short strokes for short notes, longer strokes for longer notes.
[NOTE] In order for a stroke to remain clear while shaping a musical phrase, a point of reference is needed. This point of reference is a click: a click is a movement originating from the wrist determining the starting point of the stroke. It coincides with the beat in the pattern. Because it is part of the stroke, and a stroke can be vertical or horizontal, a click can also be vertical or horizontal. In short, you need to have a clear pulse.
Dynamics can be a little different, depending on the situation: as a rule of thumb, a piano dynamic calls for smaller gestures. That does not mean that you should use humongous gestures for forte dynamics: in a fast tempo, that would not work as you will get tired pretty soon and slow down the orchestra. The trick here is to initiate the forte and then reduce the size of the stroke, letting the orchestra play. You will get a much better sound, especially from the brass.
Aside from keeping a certain posture, which in turn helps the orchestra keep the focus on your gestures, body placement can vary depending on, again, the music: by body placement, I actually mean your arms, not your entire body.
Registration and dynamics, once again, come into play, along with orchestration.
Let’s consider this excerpt from Dvorak’s 9th symphony for example:
It’s played by the first flute and the two oboes, in the mid-high register, in a piano dynamic. If you consider the orchestration and the dynamic, you could very well conduct this with your left hand, with small legato gestures, at eye-level. If you do this, you can set yourself up perfectly for what comes after:
…where you can arrive ready with your right hand in the lower part of your space, mirroring Dvorak’s orchestration. This will add variety to your conducting, allowing you to break the traditional 4/4 pattern while maintaining absolute clarity.
Another example can be Beethoven’s first symphony, second movement: normally this is conducted in a 3-beat pattern, with 3-1 as up-down movement. However, the music moves exactly in the opposite direction: down-up. So, why not do the same when conducting it? If you are afraid players will not understand, rest assured: as long as your pulse is clear they will have no problems with it.
When you break it down, it comes to this: give a clear pulse on the second beat, then move up a fourth, from C to F. Then a third, from F to A; then a little bit more up and then down for the descending line; then up again and down to finish the phrase.
Don’t forget to take care of the length of the notes, with a staccato and legato stroke. And of the dynamic as well, which is pianissimo, by controlling the amplitude of the gesture.
There is no “absolute right” way to do things, and conducting is no different. What’s described here is ONE way to start thinking about how to break patterns and articulate the music. Once again, it’s a technique, a means to an end.
Got questions or comments? Drop me a line in the section below!
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NOTES and CREDITS:
 Harold Farberman – The art of conducting technique, p.74
It’s very interesting to read how conducting gestures and their direct influence on the musicians’ playing has become the subject of this thesis written by Sarah Lisette Platte at the MIT.
Cover image: Hans Schließmann [Public domain]