Its importance is inherent for different reasons: it sets the tone of the music holding in itself the indications of tempo, dynamics, and articulation of the first sound the orchestra is going to play.
If you’re facing an orchestra for the first time, for example, because you’re guesting, it’s also the first physical motion that the players will experience, and contributes to building that kind of trust that is essential to a good performance.
Let’s start with the tempo indication. The upbeat must beat one full beat in the tempo of the music that the orchestra is going to play.
This might seem obvious but there are so many examples, even of very renowned conductors, where this does not happen.
Furtwängler was one of them. Players of the Berlin Philharmonic used to say: “We count 7 shakes, then we begin”.
Or Koussevitsky with the Boston Symphony: “we start playing when his baton has passed the third button of his vest”.
This does not diminish the artistic qualities of these great conductors. Rather, it points out a technical flaw for which the orchestra made up thanks to a long-standing rapport with their conductor.
However, if you’re guesting, or auditioning, or in a competition, you will not have that luxury. Hence, if you’re not clear, you’ll face 2 possibilities:
- The orchestra does not play together
- The orchestra takes over: all players look at the concertmaster and ignore you completely
I’m not really sure which one is the worst.
What’s the solution?
Aside from the golden rule mentioned earlier, if you feel insecure you can adopt a few tricks:
- think about the tempo before lifting the baton: sing in your head the first 3-4 bars of the music you’re about to conduct;
- not enough? squeeze the baton gently between the index and the thumb in tempo;
- still not enough? continue to pulse until the downbeat is delivered. This one should be the very last resort.
One word of caution: many conductors give themselves the tempo with their foot. It’s fine if you keep the movement inside your shoe but not if you tap on the podium. The noise is annoying and it looks very unprofessional.
How to practice
How can you practice this? As usual, the metronome is your friend. And so is the mirror (or the camera).
Set the metronome to 160 and do an upbeat and a downbeat. Just 2 motions. Then move the metronome down gradually of 12 to 16 points a time till you reach 48. Add a click of the wrist to each pulse and stay on the same metronome marking until you feel confident and your gestures are fluid.
Rinse and repeat. And do the same with the left hand.
Then switch to the right hand again and change the metronome markings.
We’ve only talked about the tempo but as mentioned at the beginning, the upbeat must include also the dynamic indication and the articulation.
That’s why it’s important to repeat each exercise using all 3 parts of your arm: only the wrist, the forearm, and the full arm.
When you use your full arm you are calling for a f to ff sonority; the forearm is used for a mezzo-piano to a forte dynamic; and the wrist for a pianissimo to mezzo-forte.
There are exceptions of course, and an only-wrist movement can also be used to deliver a fortissimo dynamic.
The last component is articulation: legato or staccato. Once again, try each exercise with different strokes and variants in order to cover different types of articulation at different speeds.
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