Until the 20th century, most of the repertoire was written in meters of 2-3-4 or 6. If there was to be a variation from a certain regularity of the phrasing, it could be seen in the change of bars grouped to formed a phrase: think for instance about the change from a 4 bars grouping to a 3 bars one in the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s ninth symphony.
In the 20th century, new rhythmical combinations became the norm: just think of Stravinsky or Bartok and sequences like 5/8-5/8-9/8-5/8-7/8-3/8-4/8 etc.
The most important aspect to take into consideration when conducting mixed meters is the difference in height and speed of the strokes.
What does that exactly mean?
That means, in a nutshell, that 2 and 3 are not equal. This might seem like an obvious concept but it’s really common to see them conducted equally instead of differently.
Let’s take a ⅝ meter as an example: it could be a 3+2 bar or a 2+3, depending on how the music is written and where the composer wants the logical accent.
If we do not take into consideration the height and speed of the stroke, things will get really confusing for the players.
How can we avoid this confusion?
Quite simply, we need to account for enough space for the longest stroke of the 2.
In a 2+3 configuration, the height of the 3 must be bigger than the height of the 2 in order to account for all 3 beats. Always take a baseline as a point of reference.
The baton speed needs to remain constant, in order to automatically fulfill all the 3 beats. If the baton speed varies, you’ll find yourself waiting at the top to fulfill the time or slowing down the speed of the stroke that should account for 3 beats.
Not keeping in check the speed and the height of the baton can cause another scenario: your longer stroke will curve down and the 3 will be in the same place where the 1 is.
Both cases are unclear for who’s watching.
The trick lies, once again, in a clear delivery of the pulse through the wrist. In fast tempi, the wrist is the only option; in moderate ones, there can be a combination with the forearm but the impulse still comes from the wrist.
Using the full arm, starting with the shoulder, and large gestures will not make anything clearer. If anything, it actually sorts the opposite effect, and the orchestra will inevitably slow down. Even if you have fortissimo passages, a sharp click from the wrist will be more than enough to achieve the result.
Everyone depends on you for clarity. When you practice, always keep in check the height and the speed of the baton. Take a passage from the Rite of Spring, slow it down, “speak the rhythm”, film yourself, and watch what you did.
Try single ones at first, separately (for example only ⅝ – 3+2 or ⅝ 2+3) and then combinations: ⅝ in its 2 different variants, ⅞ in 3 different variants, etc.
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