Unlike instrumental and vocal techniques, over the centuries conducting technique has not seen the same type of development. To this day it is still largely taught in very basic blocks: right hand for keeping the tempo in two-dimensional patterns, left hand for expression. This idea is fundamentally limiting the conductor to a time beating machine with some non-specific gestures left for an even more generic concept of expression. It also fuels the myth that “conductors are born, not made” and that “conducting cannot be taught” beyond its basic commands.
Discovering how to approach a composition from a technical point of view while attaching a personal musical idea to it is a fairly unknown process to those who venture in this profession. It is, in fact, considered a product of experience, therefore unavailable to conductors at the beginning of their journey.
Needless to say, this is faulty approach, effectively robbing young conductors of an opportunity to mold their technique in the early stages of their conducting lives. Conducting in itself is a lifetime learning experience but the steps through which one goes are always the same:
- Learning the score
- Installing a technical system for its delivery
- Delivering your interpretation
Most of us are taught 1 and 3: sing the lines, do the structure analysis, get to the bottom of the harmonic relationships, study the score at the piano if you can. That’s number one.
Then go on the podium and be yourself. After all, you can’t have the orchestra in your living room to practice, so once you know a few patterns and a few tricks you do as you feel.
That generally turns into the conductor feeling very insecure (which then results in frustration on both sides and with blaming the players because they don’t understand or pay enough attention) and the orchestra eventually turning away and taking over, effectively making the performance and saving the conductor in the process.
And then we wonder why players do not look at conductors…
While the first step is obviously fundamental, it is, in fact, only the first step. So far, as a conductor, you have “only” studied the music.
You then jump to the third step directly: delivering to the orchestra your knowledge of the score. The culprit is the second step: how do you do that?
The delivering of your newly acquired knowledge is left to a handful of all-purpose patterns that surely are not able to convey your musical thoughts completely. The first consequence of this is a lot of time wasted in verbally explaining what could (and should) be physically shown.
If we start from the point of view that music creates the technique – instead of superimposing 300 years old formulas on it – it becomes clear how necessary is a technical language specifically modeled after the score you have in front of you.
Music creates the technique: therefore, every piece of music, down to every bar should account for different technical elements.
This is the nuts and bolts of Visual Score Study: look at the score from a technical point of view, seeing in it a graphical representation of a succession of baton movements.
This means that when you look at a score, you need to start looking at the notated music as baton movements.
When you start paying more attention to the visual aspect of the page, you’ll start to correlate those signs with baton movements, different stroke types, and baton placement.
That’s when you get a visual representation of the music. That’s when you can actually start conducting.
How does this help you studying a score?
From a purely technical point of view the benefit is immediate. The topography of the score will be an enormous reservoir of gestures:
- The length and character of the notes, determining the length of the stroke: dots, dashes, slurs, accents, and so forth; when a note has a dot, you would do a short stroke (note that it’s coming from the wrist); when a note is longer, you would elongate your stroke; a circle corresponds to a slur; if the second note of the slur has a dot, you would make half a circle and stop the stroke
- Dynamics determine the region in which a stroke is performed (away or close to your body) and its amplitude: stay in the area away from your body for a forte and come back towards your body for a diminuendo to a piano and pianissimo. There are, of course, exceptions, and the outer area can also be useful for piano and pianissimo, with very small wrist gestures; dynamics also determine the amplitude of the stroke: you cannot ask for a pianissimo while doing big gestures and shushing the orchestra at the same time; or even worse, by conducting with wide strokes and kneeling behind the stand!
- Orchestration determines the space in which the stroke is performed (higher or lower): this allows you to take into consideration another aspect: let’s imagine you have to conduct a brass section in a typical choral: if you conduct that up at eye-level you will miss the full weight of the instrument and the sound will change to one that’s as thin as the players can do it. You can imagine that with the second movement of Dvorak’s 9th symphony
- Pitch serves as a map for following the contour of the line
Once you combine all of this together, you will have a unique vocabulary that changes almost from bar to bar, effectively giving you all the tools to show the music, “painting” its shape in the air.
There is another advantage: technique is, obviously, a means to an end. Looking at the score from this perspective accelerates your learning curve. Because you have to attach a very specific musical meaning to your gestures, the correlation between physical movements and musical thoughts is not abstract any longer.
It’s much easier to remember a piano dynamic when it is attached, for example, to a small movement of the wrist at eye level in the farthest region of your body played by the oboe. The baton placement/stroke becomes a direct reflection of your musical thought instead of being a disconnected gesture.
Visual Score Study can also be applied, on a generic level, before the standard studying of the score: skimming through the music while looking at the graphical path that it designs will give you a head start during your analytical process.
This is known as Visual Score Study and Baton Placement. It’s the first step in practicing at home, and being more prepared when you get in front of the orchestra. It’s also a way to speed up score studying: the amount of practical information that you can deduce just by looking at a score is enormous.
You can now start looking at a score in a 3-dimensional space and using different parts of your conducting space for different reasons, all coming from the music itself.
How to practice
Practicing Visual Score Study is just like practicing any other technique: the more you do it, the better and faster you become at it. There is no shortcut. There are, however, exercises. Start with asking yourself a fundamental question: how can I show this?
From there you move to all the aspect of that specific part you are looking at: is it forte or piano? Who’s playing it? In which register? Where is the line going?
While it is a little more obvious where to move in case dynamic registrations (generally speaking closer to your body for piano further away for forte – although there are exceptions), pitch registration represents the most challenging aspect of this technique. It is what can effectively help you break a pattern: if you follow the music line, one can be up instead of down.
Imagine a piano keyboard. Now flip it vertically. “Play” a scale on it, clicking on every note with your wrist, starting at waist level and moving up and down in a straight line from C to C. Start at 60 on a metronome and move your way up.
Register the line in intervals
Register the line on an arpeggio
Remember that pitch registration is approximate and most effective in slow to mid tempi. In fast tempi, for obvious reasons, a general contour can only be given.
Most likely you’ve done all of the above with your right hand. Now, repeat everything with your left hand 🙂
Once you start looking at music this way, you will be forced to emulate what’s on the page with strokes that closely relate to it.
Every composer, every piece of music will get a fresh look, a new set of baton gestures that mirror what they wrote layered with your own interpretation.
It’s the beginning of the end of repetitive time beating in endless patterns.