This is one of the most frequently asked questions. How do orchestra conductors practice at home? Given the fact that we cannot have our instrument – the orchestra – at hand, it can be quite challenging. With time one learns to automatically articulate musical thoughts and translate them into physical gestures but in the beginning, it’s good to have a few tips.

Practicing conducting can be divided into 2 main areas:

 

  1. How to approach a new score
  2. How to practice and articulate your musical choices 

How to approach a new score 

 Start with the big picture, and progressively move into smaller details.

That pretty much sums it up! Whether you are studying a newly composed work or you are approaching a masterpiece for the first time, the process is the same: find the big picture, the structure, the long arch connecting everything together and that will give you the direction of the piece.  

If you’re proficient enough in piano, that will certainly be of help but it’s not mandatory. There have been (and are) countless great conductors who could not read a score at the piano – Koussewitztky being one of the most famous examples.

How do you get from A to B? What’s the form of the piece? Are there tempo changes? Are they immediate or gradual? If they are gradual, how long do they stretch for?

After that you can start digging deeper: smaller sections, details, instrumentation (I take for granted the obvious harmonical analysis).

Once you start forming a more precise idea of the piece, you’ll find yourself dealing with some other rather “obvious” choices on the technical aspect, like the aforementioned tempo changes, cues, dynamics etc.

A lot of this comes natural with practice and experience but if you’re just starting out and still trying to find your way and better your skills there are some things you can try before stepping on the podium.

Marking the score

This is a very subjective point: it depends a lot on what kind of photographic memory you have. Some conductors, like Maazel, could simply look at a score once and have it completely memorized to the last detail. Most people do not have that gift and marking the score can be of great help.

For example, you could use colors, and mark cues in blue and dynamics in red; or tempo changes in green; or structural phrasing with a downward line for the whole orchestra.

There is no set system here, really. You need to find what works best for you in order to study better and be more efficient. Some conductors do not like to mark their scores at all; others cannot study if they do not mark them in very specific ways. Bernstein used to mark, mainly in blue, all of his scores. There is no right or wrong here.

 

Bowing

While going into details, bowings might be something to think about. However, this is something to be very careful about: if you are a string player and you know what you are doing, you can mark and then ask for specific bowings. If you are not a string player, you need to have a very good comprehension of how bowings work and what kind of sound you can obtain with an upbow stroke vs a downbow one. If you’re unsure, make a note and ask the concertmaster or the section leader before the beginning of the first rehearsal.

 

A page from Mahler’s Symphony n.5 with Bernstein’s markings. Courtesy of the New York Philharmonic Leon Levy digital archives.

How to practice and articulate your musical choices

Once you’ve made your musical choices, you can start with the technical aspect: technique is a tool and should always be there to support and show the music. Since technique must come from the music, it is only logical that your musical choices will influence your conducting. 

To start, imagine you have the orchestra in front of you: now, sing and conduct. You don’t need to be a singer, that’s not the important part: singing gives you a better idea of breathing and phrasing. After all, instruments are supposed to imitate the human voice, right? 😉 

And you might find yourself in the situation of having to sing a certain line to your players: if you’re used to doing it, you will be much less self-conscious about doing it in front of the orchestra. Toscanini used to sing out of tune all the time while rehearsing with the orchestra: nobody cared. What players care about and listen for is the intention in your singing.

Film yourself: use your camera, your phone, your tablet and when you re-watch it make sure your conducting fundamentals are in place: 

Body placement and posture

Stand up straight and relax your shoulders; make sure you’re not dancing around while conducting or bouncing on your knees, that’s very distracting for the players. The way you pose yourself has a direct connection with the sound you create. Not to mention on the response the orchestra will have. 

The eyes

Look at the players in their eyes: not above their head, not in their direction, but in their eyes. If you’re practicing at home, take a dot on the wall or anything else as a point of reference, or put some post-its on the wall itself for different players/sections.

Avoid conducting with your eyes closed: you will isolate yourself and lose the connection with your musicians.

Baton grip and baton placement

While you’re at it, keep in check the grip of your baton. On top of that, where is your baton placed in space? Does it make sense according to dynamics, instrumentation, registration etc?

The left hand

What is your left hand doing? Mirroring the right hand or hanging in the air with no purpose? If you there is no use for the left hand, don’t use it. When you do use it, make sure it has a purpose: practice registration for example, or cues.

Putting it all together

When you start breaking patterns, considering registration, dynamics, cues and everything else, it can become fairly overwhelming.

PRACTICE SLOWLY.

Just like you would do on your instrument: break it down to where you see yourself having problems and practice only that section. And then, bit by bit, you can put it all together. 

Excerpt from Pass the baton, chapter 8 – Beethoven, Symphony n.1

Excerpt from Pass the baton, chapter 7 – Copland, Appalachian Spring

Final thoughts

Practicing conducting is much harder than practicing an instrument, simply because you do not have your instrument with you, and therefore you have no immediate response of what you are doing. That’s why filming yourself can be of great help. With time and experience, you’ll learn to automatically articulate your musical thoughts and your gestures will be in sync without the need of a mirror.

A word of advice: do NOT study with recordings. You will end up practicing on someone else’s performance, feeling another conductor’s tempos, and most of all, following instead of leading.

Listening to recordings to learn from the masters and get inspired is a great thing to do; trying to practice conducting on them is a very bad idea.

Pass the baton

10 chapters, 11 videos, practical exercises, and examples with scores: this video course produced for iClassical-Academy will show you, through a bar-by-bar analysis of excerpts ranging from Mozart to Mahler and Copland, how to build your own technique in the most logical and effective way.

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