So You Want to be a Conductor?
Created | Updated May 30, 2013
The art of conducting1 is a mysterious and prestigious one that often impresses people who don't understand what it is, and infuriates those who do understand, but don't conduct. Surprisingly, conducting can require some musical knowledge beforehand, and occasionally some sort of talent within the specific ensemble you are conducting.
Most conductors begin conducting after playing with an ensemble, or even a variety, for a number of years. In all this time they will have followed a conductor2, and will have observed the various styles that are available to the aspiring maestro.
This Entry concerns itself with taking you from complete novice to convincing blagger in only a matter of minutes.
What a Conductor Does
This is a point of some contention between musicians, and sometimes conductors themselves. In essence, their primary concern is to oversee and co-ordinate the musical endeavours of a group. If you are conducting a choir you may also be expected to remind them of the words; for now we would advise that you steer well clear of choirs for some time.
You may think a conductor has the simplest job of turning up on stage later than everyone else, flouncing their arms about, and taking all the praise. This may sound like a thrilling proposition, but beware! Concerts are the tip of the iceberg for a conductor; they are not simply there to keep time and tell the trombones to be quieter on stage. Oh no. A conductor's work starts well before the stage is even in sight.
You, as the conductor, will generally have the sole responsibility of choosing the pieces to play, and developing an understanding of them. Many conductors will begin with pieces they know well, generally pieces they've played. Another suitable starting place is choosing music that you have listened to many times, and which you enjoy.
If you are choosing a programme for a specific concert or event you may wish to 'balance' this. This generally will mean that you have as many fast pieces as slow pieces, as many jolly pieces as sad pieces, a grand opening and a breath-taking finale.
Presuming, as we are, that you're a complete novice you may well wish, as an amateur gambler does at a race track, to choose the ones with pretty names.
This will require you to understand the pieces you have chosen, and to decide how you want them to go. The golden rule in regards to interpretation is that you, as the conductor, are never wrong. A composer may have given you an indication of tempo, the 'correct' notes, dynamics and a variety of other handy hints, but now it's time to show your true colours.
Try to imagine the picture the music paints, the colours of the composers palette, the moods he or she expresses. If you're struggling with these quite lucid concepts maybe think about what would be happening if this music were used in a film. If there are small children skipping you may well decide to approach the piece differently than if a T-Rex is just about to gobble up the leading lady.
Once you have in your mind these arty notions try and conjure up a list of similes, adjectives and examples which you can band about willy nilly in rehearsals. A composer may well give you a few words in Italian (or for lesser composers, in English) which he feels sum up the style of the piece just above the beginning bars of the score, a useful starting point for your interpretation, which can be discarded at will.
In creating your interpretation you may wish to consult the handy guide to musical terminology.
Handy Guide To Musical Terminology
Herein you find a variety of musical terms, and what they are actually telling you to do; we have helpfully categorised these as follows:
The speed at which you choose to fling your arms around.
- Andante - slow arm-waving.
- Allegro - fast arm-waving.
- Largo - wave your arms so slowly that your shoulders hurt.
- Presto - wave your arms so fast that your shoulders hurt.
- Grave - wave your arms slowly and look miserable.
- Vivace - wave your arms quickly and try to look like Carol Smiley3.
How loud or quiet you should let them play.
- mƒ- everyone's 'natural' dynamic eg, how loud it is when you just pick the thing up and blow.
- mp - a little quieter than normal.
- ƒ - loud, but don't overdo it.
- p - quiet, but audible.
- ƒƒ - loud, overdo it.
- pp - really quiet, so the audience isn't sure if you're still playing or not.
- ƒƒƒ - if you come out of this alive you've not played loud enough.
- ppp - inaudible.
- ƒp - start off loud, but then play really quietly.
- sƒz - loud and 'hit' hard.
- cresc - short for crescendo, which means get louder. May be represented by a <.
- dim - meaning 'diminuendo'. It's not personal, but get quieter please. May be represented by a >.
The pattern in which you fling your arms (we'll come back to this).
- 4/4 - four definite beats, sometimes shown as a C.
- 3/4 - three beats.
- 2/4 - two beats.
- 2/2 - two beats.
- 6/8 - two beats.
- 12/8 - four beats.
What on Earth do I do with my Arms?
This is a question all conductors must face, and very few overcome.
Essentially you will be using your hands for two main purposes - to keep time and to indicate dynamics. This is extremely handy, as you have two arms which are capable of independent motion.
With your right hand you will be keeping time. There are recognised patterns for each time signature. Lesser mortals will stick to these rigidly, but as you are planning on greatness you can almost totally ignore these constrictive motions. Thinking on a higher plane requires far more than merely getting beats in the right places - this is music!
As long as your hand bounces along with every beat of the bar you'll be fine with whatever kind of scribble you draw in the air. If the players are struggling to follow your gesticulating you may wish to accentuate the first beat of the bar with a 'downbeat'. This essentially means making a distinct downward movement with your hand on the first beat of every bar. The above discussed time signatures really are just an indication of how often you need to make a down beat. In 4/4 or 12/8 time you will be expected to make the first of every four beats the down beat. In 2/4, 6/8 and 2/2 it will be every other beat that the down beat comes into play.
Your left hand is your ticket to volume control. We conductors may wish that we simply had to turn a knob, or press a button as we do on our CD or MP3 players, but live music is never that simple. Encouraging players to get louder is usually indicated by an upturned palm, with optional rising of the hand to increase the volume further. In direct opposition to this to get them to play quieter turn your palm downwards, you may wish to lower this for added effect.
These hands do not have to be kept independent, each can contribute to the other's plight.
If you want a really big sound you may combine both arms in wild far flung gestures, or for a small sound you may make very small, delicate motions. If you want to change the tempo of the piece, or feel that the players are not following you accurately4 then you may wish to beat time with both hands. Double-handed motions, though, should be reserved only for special moments within the piece. This enhances their effectiveness, and prevents you from looking too much like an ostrich attempting to fly.
The most important thing to learn though, with respect to your arm movements, is how to make them stop. A short, but unhurried motion which stops dead should always be enough to apply the brakes. If there are any members of the group turning red, or alternatively blue, you may wish to hold on to that last note a little longer. Remember that they must keep playing until you stop them; do so decisively and all is well. An audience will always remember a bad end to a piece, so ensure that you all stop together and half the battle has been won.
As Sir Thomas Beecham once said:
Here are two golden rules for an orchestra: start together and finish together. The public doesn't give a damn what goes on in between.
With your time-keeping right hand you may wish to grasp a baton. This is a French term which means stick, and that's exactly what it is. Nobody in captivity knows what the stick is supposed to achieve, but all musicians know what it is really for. It is a sign of your dominance.
While there may be a whole host of violins, clarinets or trumpets there is only ever one conductor, and you have the single white stick to remind both you, and more importantly them, that you are above them in every way imaginable5. It also can act as compensation for your distinct lack of instrument. While they lumber around with their tubas, cellos and assorted items of percussion you simply pick up your little white stick and are ready to sort out that abominable noise they've been making lately.
Use it wisely and they will follow you. Tap it on your stand to get attention, throw it at anyone playing badly, or pick your nose with it and they will ignore you and do what they feel like anyway6.
Now that you have your pieces, have developed an understanding and interpretation of them, and can throw some impressive shapes you must introduce these musical delights to your ensemble. This is where the hard work comes in.
The point of a rehearsal is to take the players7 from a point where they are sight-reading8 to a point where they 'know' the music, understand your interpretation, and hopefully can make it sound like some music.
You must do this through technical instruction, expressive descriptions of the sound you desire, and over-dramatic waving of the arms.
To begin, ensure everyone has the correct piece in front of them, and inform them you are 'taking it from the top' - jargon meaning 'go from the start'. To look like you really know your part look at your watch, as if working out the tempo, and beat gently with your spare hand.
Lift your hands up, and they will lift their instruments into place. Pause ever so briefly just before you move to bring them in. Let them wait - show them who's boss. You either have a choice of counting them in (beaten or spoken and beaten), or bringing them straight in. If you're counting then tell them 'after-' and the number of beats in a bar. If you haven't managed to establish this just bring them straight in.
It is always best to give them a run through from top to bottom to hear how it goes, then 'break it down'. This is the process of doing small sections of the music to death until they sound like how you wanted the piece to go. This is the point at which you may bandy about your fancy phrases. Useful phrases you might wish to throw in for good measure include 'watch your tuning/intonation/accidentals', reminding them to 'count their rests', 'place accents accurately'. Sometimes you may wish to break the music down further by omitting instruments, and focussing your attention on others.
If you are conducting a large enough ensemble to have '1st' and '2nd' players you are quite at liberty to pick on the 2nds at will, merely to exercise your authority.
Never be afraid to sing at them. If you do this with a sufficiently serious demeanour they will take it as useful insight, rather than shambolic quasi-karaoke. Not only sing to them how it should sound (in your mind), but how it absolutely should not sound. Often this will be how they are playing it. If they get something wrong over emphasise it when you sing at them, then they will think it ridiculous and buck their ideas up.
Above all else never let on that you have the slightest doubt about what you are saying, and always have a few analogies and points you can throw into the ether. If someone plays something well praise them - this is particularly helpful if you praise a section of the group eg, 'well played trumpets' or 'much better violas', as it creates a sense of camaraderie, and competitiveness. Equally lump sections together for discouraging comments eg, 'too loud trombones' or 'can we have some tonguing from the clarinets'. If you are challenged by a member of your group - there are always one or two who think they can do better - then stand firm. Appreciate their concerns or try and understand their point of view, then show them the stick and carry on doing what you were going to do anyway.
It's concert time. Always be prepared - you are in charge now, and it is important to make sure everyone, including the audience, knows that. Whatever the group are wearing, endeavour to wear something just a little more extravagant. Have your music ready on your stand. Walk about the place with your head held high and your shoulders back.
Then the moment of glory arrives.
They take the stage, 'tune' up9 and prepare to begin. You must wait for a few moments of silence, then pace out to the front. Walk swiftly, but not hurriedly. You want to look purposeful, but not flustered. Arrive at your stand, lick your finger and open your score. Take a deep breath. Lift your arms. Wait for complete silence, and then begin. This is what you've all been waiting for. From this point on there is very little you can do to affect the sound your players make. Just make sure you cut them all off at the end and your job is essentially done. But always remember this is a performance and as such the audience are there not only to listen, but to watch. Give them something to admire, make expressive hand motions, flowing sweeps of the arms, jilted pointing motions with the baton. You are the star of the show.
The piece finishes and you turn to face the audience. Lap up the applause, the players may think they share it, but it is for you and you alone. Take a bow, hell, it might seem pretentious - but this is your moment. You may wish to acknowledge the ensemble out of courtesy. Vaguely wave your arm in their direction and smile. This, this is what it's all about.