“The music is not in the notes but in the silence between.” So Mozart said.
Obviously, the music continues also when there is silence, whether that is a small breath in between phrases, a dramatic luftpause, or a longer fermata over a rest.
This gives a conductor the opportunity to use a variety of baton strokes. The length of the silence determines the amount of movement.
Before we continue, let me point out that there are differences, in length, between breath signs and fermatas. The breath sign is shorter. The fermatas, even the ones over the barlines such as in the Scherzo of Beethoven’s ninth symphony, are longer.
These signs are not interchangeable and as conductors, we’re supposed to take that into consideration in order not to change the musical effect that the composer strived for.
It’s also very common to rely on the established rhythm of the piece, turning a breath mark into an extra rest. This takes away from the effect of interrupting that very same rhythmical flow with the surprise of an uneven silence. There is a brilliant example of this in the first movement of Mahler’s second symphony.
Back to the rests.
Rests at the beginning of a movement
Should you conduct them? The answer varies. If you are conducting a piece that the orchestra does not know, or if not all players start at the same time, then the answer is yes.
Let’s say the piece is 4/4 and the first sound is on the last beat. The first 2 beats are conducted smaller, while the third beat will be the preparatory stroke for the players’ entrance. The first 2 beats should reflect the absence of sound. Their purpose is to mark the tempo, clearly, lightly, and without impact. The third beat, on the other hand, must have all the information for the players: dynamics, tempo, and articulation.
If the fourth beat starts with a silence, for example, an eight note rest, then the first 3 beats are small, and the preparatory stroke lies in that rest.
After rehearsing, you can also decide to cut the first 2 beats and start from the pickup on the third. If this is your choice, make sure that everyone knows it. Especially if you have subs joining in at the last minute.
The same approach goes for other meters and combinations.
Rests at the beginning of a movement
Different approach concerns the rest at the end of the movement. When a piece ends on the downbeat, the rests are there to conclude the bar but there’s no need to conduct them. It’s actually distracting.
There’s always a moment at the end of a piece that needs some silence: the music transcends the written page and both the players and the audience need time to absorb what just happened.
This is especially important in movements ending in piano or pianissimo dynamics. There’s nothing more disturbing at the end of Tchaikovsky’s 6th than a conductor moving needlessly or a player making noises like folding the music.
Stay as still as possible. Everyone will feel that the piece is not finished and they will not move nor applaud until you relax your posture.
Moving after rests
When you move from one rest to another within a bar or across bars there are a couple of things to pay attention to. Assuming that everyone is playing homorhythmically, not all the rests on the page are the same. Take a look at this example, which you can use as an exercise:
- in bar 1 the rests are marked small,
- in bar 2 the first rest is small, the second one is a preparatory stroke for the third beat, in a piano dynamic: this means a soft click from the wrist, in this case, due to the height of the pitch, at low-chest level; the fourth beat is a marked rest
- in bar 3 the first rest is the preparatory stroke, in forte this time, from the forearm, while 3 and 4 are marked
- in bar 4 beats 1 and 2 are marked while beat 3 is a preparatory stroke for a pianissimo chord
- in bar 5 the first beat is marked while the preparation happens with a sharp click on the eight note rest. Make sure that the rest on beat one is marked or it will get confusing for the players
- bar 6 does not need anything for the first 3 beats, which should not even be marked. Give a sharp upbeat on the 4th beat for the downbeat sffz of the following bar.
This type of exercise can help you identify the strokes that are really important in moving throughout the rests while respecting the music and being clear for the players. If you want to train yourself on some music you can use Copland’s Appalachian Spring, from number 35 to number 37, or the Scherzo from Beethoven’s 9th symphony.
Start improving your conducting today with this Pass-the-baton video course created exclusively for iClassical-Academy
As usual, practice slowly and gradually work your way up to tempo.
Incidentally, you can use the same Scherzo to practice a fermata over the barline. The technique here is to make a slight stop in the gesture before moving to the next beat. You might, depending on the case, also need to add a cutoff with your left hand.
In the end, some rests, like a gran pausa, are measured; others, like a fermata over the barline, are not. Some are more important than others.
It’s up to you to determine how long a silence should be in some cases. In others, the composer did that and it’s important to understand which rests need more attention for clarity of execution.