A conductor’s cue is nothing but a signal, a preparation for a musical event. It’s how we, as conductors, help the players. We use it, for instance, when a player or a section has an entrance.
The cue consists of two parts: preparation and release
A visual preparation is important to reassure and/or encourage the players. Experienced players will come in no matter what but as conductors it’s our job to take notice of their work and support them.
When possible, you should look at the player you’re about to cue at least one bar before the cue happens. Eye contact is crucial.
Preparing a cue
The preparation of the cue takes place one beat before the entrance: you look at the player, point your baton towards the player or the section and click with your wrist.
The click will determine the volume, the intensity and the length of what is about to be played: all of this information goes into a single cue. That’s why it should never be done on the event itself but before. This way, wind or brass players or singers will have time to breath; string players to lift the bow and so forth.
If you do not prepare the cue, the players have no chance or choice: they will come in and shape the music as they see fit because they haven’t received any information from the podium.
Breathing with the players or singers is particularly important: when you breath while cueing the players can feel it, and even more so, the singers. It’s of invaluable help for them, not to mention that with no breathing there cannot be any music!
How do you make a cue?
To begin with, it’s not just the left hand that is reserved for cues: you can make a cue either with your left hand or your right hand. How do you choose which hand? As a rule of thumb split the orchestra in half and use your right hand for players on your right hand side and the left hand for players on your left hand side. It doesn’t make any sense to turn your whole body around to cue the first violins with your right hand while you can simply extend your left arm or viceversa for, let’s say, the celli.
Cues must be addressed and made in the direction of the player. Prepare the stroke according to the score: piano, forte, sforzato, etc., breath, and click one beat ahead of the release. This means that if the player starts on 1 in a 4/4 bar, your cue must be on the 4th beat of the bar previous to the entrance. If the player comes in on 3 your cue must be on beat 2.
Delivering a cue
The preparation is half of the work. After you prepare your cue you need to deliver it, following up on the intensity, dynamics, and everything else you promised in your preparatory pulse. If you prepared a sforzato you need to follow through with it; same with a forte dynamic. And after you deliver the cue, try to stay with the player(s), when possible, as long as you can. Guide them, keep eye contact, and keep making music together.
As an exercise, imagine the orchestra in front of you: take a 4/4 bar, start your metronome at a slow pace and cue the timpani for instance on beat 1, in piano, then move to the 1st violins on beat 2 and then the basses on beat 4.
Make your own combinations of sections and players and gradually increase the speed.
Then change the dynamics and the character.
Do not use your body as a cueing instrument: make sure you’re standing straight, you’re well-rooted on the podium and give the cues with your hands and arms, not with your head or anything else.
A note about offbeat cues
One thing needs to be noted: the preparation of the cues that I’ve mentioned so far concern direct entrances on a beat. What about offbeats though? What if the player needs to come in on the 2nd eighth note of a bar?
When it comes to an offbeat cue in the middle of a piece, the preparation is not on the beat before but directly on the beat of the event. If, however, you are starting the piece with an offbeat cue – for instance the beginning of Beethoven’s fifth symphony – you will need to give a pulse-less preparation on the bar before and then pulse on the downbeat. The no-pulse preparation ensures that none of the players will start ahead, while the pulse on the downbeat will ensure rhythmical clarity for everyone.