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CONDUCTING REVIEW
1. Time signature
The beat of the music is typically indicated with the conductor's right hand, with or without a baton. The
hand traces a shape in the air in every bar (measure) depending on the time signature, indicating each beat
with a change from downward to upward motion. The images show the most common beat patterns, as seen
from the conductor's point of view.
The downbeat indicates the first beat of the bar, and the upbeat indicates the last beat of the bar. The instant
at which the beat occurs is called the ictus (plural: ictus or ictuses), and is usually indicated by a sudden
(though not necessarily large) click of the wrist or change in baton direction. In some instances, "ictus" is
also used to refer to a horizontal plane in which all the ictuses are physically located, such as the top of a
music stand where a baton is tapped at each ictus. The gesture leading up to the ictus is called the
"preparation", and the continuous flow of steady beats is called the "takt".
2. Tempo (rit., rall., rubato., fermata, etc.)
If the tempo is slow or slowing, or if the time signature is compound, a conductor will sometimes indicate
"subdivisions" of the beats. The conductor can do so by adding each beat with 'and', where each is a smaller
movement but in the same direction of the beat that it belongs to.
Changes to the tempo are indicated by changing the speed of the beat. To carry out and to control a
rallentando, a conductor may introduce beat subdivisions.
Some conductors use both hands to indicate the beat, with the left hand mirroring the right, though others
view this as redundant and therefore to be avoided. This is also seen as improper practice by many. The
second hand should be used for cueing the entrances of individual players or sections, and to aid the
indication of dynamics, phrasing, expression, and other musical elements.
3. Dynamics
Dynamics are indicated in various ways. The dynamic may be communicated by the size of the conducting
movements: the larger the shape, the louder the sound. Changes in dynamic may be signaled with the hand
that is not being used to indicate the beat: an upward motion (usually palm-up) indicates a crescendo; a
downward motion (usually palm-down) indicates a diminuendo. Changing the size of conducting
movements may result in unintended tempo changes because larger movements require the beat to traverse
more space in the same amount of time.
Dynamics can be fine-tuned using various gestures: showing one's palm to the performers or leaning away
from them may demonstrate a decrease in volume. In order to adjust the overall balance of the various
instruments or voices, these signals can be combined directed towards a particular section or performer.
4. Articulation (legato, marccato, staccato, accent, etc)
Articulation may be indicated by the character of the ictus, ranging from short and sharp for staccato, to
long and fluid for legato. Many conductors change the tension of the hands: strained muscles and rigid
movements may correspond to marcato, while relaxed hands and soft movements may correspond to legato
or espressivo.
5. Cues (breath marks, phrases, entrances, cut offs, etc)
Phrasing may be indicated by wide overhead arcs or by a smooth hand motion either forwards or side-toside. A held note is often indicated by a hand held flat with palm up. The end of a note, called a "cutoff" or
"release", may be indicated by a circular motion, the closing of the palm, or the pinching of finger and
thumb. A release is usually preceded by a preparation and concluded with a complete stoppage of motion.
6. Singing/playing reminders (vowel shape, posture, facial expression, etc.)
7. Accompaniment (piano, inst.)
*Conductors aim to maintain eye contact with the ensemble as much as possible, encouraging eye contact
in return and increasing the general dialogue between players/singers and conductor. Facial expressions
may also be important to demonstrate the character of the music or to encourage the players.
*A distinction is sometimes made between orchestral/band conducting and choral conducting.
Stereotypically, orchestral conductors use a baton more often than choral conductors (though not always:
this is up to the conductor's personal preference), and favor the use of beat patterns over gestural
conducting, which concentrates more on musical expression and shape.
*Conducting is communicating. A conductor must communicate the music that is inside himself/herself
and bring it out of the performing ensemble.
Conducting is a means of communicating real-time information to performers. There are no absolute rules
on how to conduct correctly, and a wide variety of different conducting styles exist. The primary
responsibilities of the conductor are to set the tempo, execute clear preparations and beats, and to listen and
shape the sound of the ensemble.
An understanding of the basic elements of musical expression (tempo, dynamics, articulation) and the
ability to communicate them effectively to an ensemble is necessary in order to conduct. The ability to
communicate nuances of phrasing and expression through gesture is also beneficial. Conducting gestures
may be choreographed beforehand by the conductor while studying the score, or may be spontaneous.
Terms:
Conducting - The art of directing a musical performance by way of visible gestures.
Ictus - The instant at which the beat occurs
Prep – The conducted beat occurring before the peformers enter.
Conducting beat patterns