Accents, just as much as cues, need to be prepared ahead of time. it’s quite easy to fall into the trap of indicating an accent by simply making the gesture heavier on the event itself. However, this can get you, the conductor, dangerously close to following the orchestra instead of leading it. You must be one step ahead of any event you conduct at all times.
The preparation for the accents must hold the dynamic and rhythmic qualities of the accent itself. Its impulse comes, guess what, from the wrist.
Whether you are in a slow or a fast tempo, in a pianissimo or fortissimo dynamic, the wrist allows for the shortest distance between the preparation and the delivery of the stroke, and therefore the clearest.
Let’s take a popular excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. By the way, the concepts of conducting rests will come in very useful here, even though the strings are playing underneath the rests.
In Bar 1 the second beat is smaller and less intense than the third which serves as a preparation for the fourth beat. The preparation must be short and tight to reflect the character of the chord
In Bar 2 the preparation for the first chord is even quicker since it happens on the eight note rest. Stop the rebound. Beat two needs to be smaller and less intense while beat 3 needs again all the properties of the chord on the fourth beat.
Bar 3 needs a strong preparation on beat one and on beat 3
One other tip: pay attention to the cymbals. The sound should be short, with a sort of high pitch quality. Your short stroke will help achieve this on top of ensuring that everyone is together.
Sudden dynamic changes
The previous example has everyone playing forte. What happens if you have to prepare a fortissimo accent right after a pianissimo dynamic?
A big gesture on the pianissimo would take the surprise away for the audience. On the other hand, the lack of preparatory stroke will impact the sound and the intention of the fortissimo.
One way to solve this is to hide the preparation in front of your body. Position your right arm in the middle, prepare the stroke by moving towards your body, and release outwards. Once again, the impulse coming from the wrist is key to a successful stroke.
Another scenario would be the opposite: a pianissimo accent right after a fortissimo sonority. One thing to avoid is to keep conducting forte with one hand while showing piano with the other. Accents or not, it gives a mixed signal to the orchestra.
The players will simply choose to ignore one of them.
One way to deal with this is to freeze the stroke at the top for the delivery of the pianissimo. A quick click of the wrist will mark the accent.
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No matter which scenario you find yourself in, preparation is always essential. Once again, you need to prepare the event and release on it, never only conduct the event itself.