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Suggested Reading

1. Rehearsal Rooms

Struggling to improve the acoustics in your band room? Check out how the Medan Band did it.

2. Concerned about playing swing music properly?

Check out my guidelines

3. Ear training exercises for bands

Unlike piano players, ear training is essential for wind band performers. But how many band directors bother to give their bands suitable exercises?

4. Intonation problems

While tuning is simple act of adjusting a length of tubing on a wind instrument (often by reference to a single note), intonation is an ongoing process in which a player strives to match the pitch of others in the ensemble during performance. 

5. “Blowing” a wind instrument

A common misconception among wind players is to believe that the air moves through the instrument in order to produce the sound. This is simply not true. 

6. Conducting – suggestions for home practice

The best way for a conductor to improve is in front of a live ensemble. The unfortunate reality, however, is that this is not always possible. Aspiring conductors therefore have little choice but to find other ways of honing their skills.

 

Home Practice

The best way for a conductor to improve is in front of a live ensemble. The unfortunate reality, however, is that this is not always possible. Aspiring conductors therefore have little choice but to find other ways of honing their skills.

Once you have learned the basic patterns, try spending a few minutes each day alone practicing changing time signatures. This is an important skill to learn when conducting twentieth century music. Try conducting the following metre changes, giving one bar to each pattern: 4/4,3/4, 4/4, 6/8, 5/4, 2/4, 7/8, 6/8, and 3/4. Once you have mastered this, try doing it backwards. Then make up your own series of metre changes and practice them.

Some aspiring conductors practice using recordings. Others argue against this approach on the grounds that it encourages a conductor to follow the band rather than to lead it. The latter is admittedly a real danger, but the risk is worth taking in view of the restricted opportunities for beginners to conduct live ensembles. Besides, learning to follow a recording is not all bad. Conductors frequently have to use this skill when accompanying a soloist. They may also need to adjust their beat to follow the ensemble during a concert in order to avoid disaster when things go wrong unexpectedly.

When practicing with recordings, it is important to begin with works such as marches and Classical compositions that are in strict time. You should also make the effort to anticipate entrances, giving appropriate cues to the imaginary performers.

Other suggestions for home practice include the following:

 
  • Conduct using a metronome. This will aid in the development of an ability to maintain a strict tempo whenever it is desired.
 
  • Practice in front of a large mirror. Note carefully your stance, and hand position.
 
  • Try conducting in absolute silence. This will help you develop your ability to keep the music going in your head.

Additional Hints


The following points were omitted from the earlier discussions in order to avoid giving too many instructions at once. Study them carefully.

 
  • Some conductors make the mistake of giving a slow downbeat and then flick their hands up too quickly. This habit, described by Brock McEltheran as the "hot stove" technique [Conducting Technique for Beginners and Professionals, Oxford University Press, New York, 1989], risks having the band play slightly behind the beat. Keep the hand constantly moving. It should only stop briefly at the very top of the beat.
 
  • Keep your shoulders relaxed. If you tense up your shoulders, players may subconsciously imitate you.
 
  • Facial expressions can be an important means of communicating with the ensemble. However, it is probably better to avoid making wild grimaces during intense musical moments.
 
  • Do not sing or tap your foot when conducting. Such habits can ruin a performance.
 
  • Conductors often demand that players look up at the conductor. However, it is also true to say that conductors should make eye contact with the performers as much as possible. This is important to maintain rapport with the group.
 
  • Avoid all frills and exaggerated gestures. A conscious effort to establish a distinctive style also risks appearing artificial. Let your personality emerge naturally

 

 



The Basic Patterns

Introduction
The One Pattern
The Two Pattern
The Three Pattern
The Four Pattern


Introduction

Many readers will be tempted to skip this section, thinking that they are familiar with just about everything they need to know about the topic.  After all, most musicians have spent so many years watching others conducting the two, three and four patterns that is seems almost too easy to imitate them. 

Clear and accurate beat patterns are a conductor's life blood.
Such readers may simply glance through the following diagrams and then move on, looking perhaps for some guidance on how to approach more complex beat patterns instead.  If you fall into this category, it may be in your interest to take a second look.  Clear and accurate beat patterns are a conductor’s lifeblood, and few can afford to ignore an opportunity to revise the fundamentals.  Besides, you may find that the subject is not quite as straightforward are you imagined it to be.

There is plenty of controversy about conducting techniques. So much so, in fact, that some conducting courses include assignments in which students are required to read rival conducting texts and make lists of the various points of disagreement. Even so, it seems appropriate to begin this section by outlining a few traditional guidelines for conducting beat patterns often found in the literature.

The last beat of any pattern should always come from the same direction. 
The downbeat, for example, is the most important and always occurs on the first beat of the bar.  Similarly – and this is far less well appreciated – as far as possible, the last beat of any pattern should always come from the same general direction regardless of the time signature. A secondary pulse, if there is one, is located at the right of the pattern (as in 4/4 time).  A final principle advocated by many authorities is that each beat should be clearly distinguished from the one before it and the one after it.  In other words, no two icti should be in the same place.  Whatever else you do, and no matter how confused you become when conducting various metric patterns, stick closely to these rules.  They will impart a vital sense of uniformity and predictability to your conducting that will be very much appreciated by the ensemble.

Time signatures do not necessarily determine the number of strokes.
One final point.  Time signatures do not necessarily determine the number of strokes in a conducting pattern.  This is set instead by what is comfortable for the conductor and clear to the performers.  A 2/4 time signature, for example, could be conducted as two or one to a bar.

Before practicing these patterns it is also a good idea to revise the points on stance and posture noted earlier.  Stand up straight with an air of confidence and check that the baton is being held correctly.  Then place the hands in the ready position and make eye contact with the performers.  And finally, remember to inhale while executing the preparatory beat.


The One Pattern

The one pattern is often used in very fast 2/4, 3/4 and 3/8 time signatures. It appears as a series of downbeats with a single rebound as shown in the accompanying diagram.

Make sure that there is no suggestion of any subdivision or any other extraneous movement that might lead to confusion on the part of the players. Ensure also that the beat does not become too oval or U-shaped. Otherwise, it will be difficult to identify the ictus clearly. For reasons of clarity, the diagram omits the preparatory beat, as do all subsequent illustrations. However, the preparatory beat should nevertheless be employed when beginning the pattern.


The Two Pattern

The most common two pattern is designed to produce a heavy accent on the first beat of the bar and a lighter one on the second.  It is used in both 2/4 and 6/8 meters.  Notice that the rebound from the first beat travels off to the conductor’s right, not to the left.  This makes it possible for the second beat (effectively the last beat in the pattern) to travel upwards from the same direction as in the other metric patterns. 

Some conductors augment the rebound angle from the first beat closer to 90 degrees, hugging the horizontal plane.  This can often be highly appropriate, particularly if the music is of a more flowing character.  A marcato style, on the other hand, generally demands an even more angular approach than the one given here.

 


The Three Pattern

The three beat pattern is perhaps best envisaged as a triangle, and is used in ¾, 3/2, slow 3/8 and fast 9/8 meters.  There are, of course, various opinions about how to conduct a three pattern.  Some conductors prefer having all three beats occur in the same place (an approach we rejected earlier on the grounds that it could cause some confusion), while others prefer each ictus to be positioned slightly higher than the one before it.

A variety of styles have been identified in the literature.  
Some authorities (such as Maiello) argue that, in order to maintain a sense of symmetry, the length of the movement from left to right on the horizontal plane to reach the second beat should be approximately the same as the movement on the vertical plane used during the down beat. Others disagree, and argue that the distance traveled should be in direct proportion to the importance of the beats as primary and secondary accents. A variety of styles have been identified in the literature. Donald Hunsberger, Donald and Roy Ernst in The Art of Conducting (McGraw-Hill, second edition, 1992, page 26), for example, list four.  They are: the classical style, the modified classical style, the focal-plane style and the focal-point style.

The style illustrated here is commonly referred to as the modified classical style.  This places the ictus of the downbeat just below the horizontal plane so that it is slightly lower than the ictus that follows.   The idea is to make the downbeat more prominent and thus easier for the performers to follow. Remember that each ictus should be indicated by a momentary flick of the wrist executed in such a way that the flow of the baton is not interrupted.


The Four Pattern

The four pattern is used most often in 4/4, 4/2 and fast 12/8 meters.   Just as there are various schools of thought about the best way to execute a three beat pattern, so there are various opinions about how a four beat pattern should be conducted.  In fact, much that has already been noted about differences of opinion regarding the three beat pattern also applies to the four.  Notice once again how the downbeat in the diagram crosses the horizontal plane.  

One point to keep in mind when conducting a four pattern is not to allow the tip of the baton to move inwards towards the body, particularly during the execution of the second beat.  Otherwise, the players on the conductor’s right will have difficulty identifying the second beat ictus.  Remember also to keep the last beat of the pattern essentially the same as in the 2/4 and ¾ patterns.  This provides and important element of consistency.

Asymmetrical patterns

Introduction
General Principles

An Alternative Approach


Introduction

Music directors in charge of secondary school bands are not likely to come across asymmetrical meters very often.  Even so, it seems appropriate to make mention of them for the sake of conductors in charge of more advanced ensembles.

Clarity is essential.
Many conductors have individual and very specific ways of conducting asymmetrical meters.  The point is not which one is correct or incorrect, but which is the most comfortable or most appropriate for the particular style of music being played.  Above all, clarity is essential.  Asymmetrical meters are not easy to play or conduct, and careful thought should go into the matter if the conductor is going to be more of a help than a hindrance to the ensemble.

Some conductors approach the problem of conducting a five pattern by first deciding whether to divide the bar into 2 + 3 or 3 + 2 and then allocating the beats on each side of the vertical plane accordingly.  A 2 + 3 division, for example, would involve crossing the vertical plane after the second beat so that beats 3, 4 and 5 were located on the conductor’s right.  A  3 + 2 division, on the other hand, would mean crossing the vertical plane after beat 3, thus placing beats 4 and 5 only on the conductor’s right.

See my book for details.
A seven pattern is even more difficult and can severely test a conductor’s skill in maintaining a steady pulse and clear icti.  Numerous variations are possible, not in the least because the bar can be divided into a wide variety of subdivisions.  Basic combinations include 2 + 2 + 3,  2 + 3 + 2  and 3 + 2 + 2.  To make matters worse, crossing the vertical plane can mark out just about any subdivision. My book [ordering details can be accessed from the homepage] contains diagrams giving some suggested solutions.


General Principles

In working out how to conduct five and seven patterns it is a good idea to go back to the basics and remember a few of the conducting principles suggested at the outset. They are:

 
  • The downbeat is the most important and should be clearly visible.
 
  • The last beat of any pattern should always come from the same general direction.
 
  • A secondary pulse, if there is one, is located at the right of the pattern, and
 
  • Each beat should be clearly distinguished from the one before it and the one after it.
 
  • The specific pattern adopted should be both clear to the performers and comfortable for the conductor.

An Alternative Approach

Let's face it. Conducting the five and seven patterns according to diagrams given in conducting books can be pretty difficult, even for experienced conductors. Moreover, even if you manage to get it right, getting inexperienced bands to follow the beat accurately can sometimes seem almost impossible.

One of the beats has an "extra" half beat.
Fortunately, there is an easier way, and I have found that it works in most situations. This involves explaining to the band that a 5/8 is simply a lopsided 2/4 and that a 7/8 is really a lopsided 3/4. In each case, one of the beats has an “extra” half a beat. The music director then conducts the 5/8 and the 7/8 like a standard two or three pattern, except that there is a delay on the last beat equal to the extra eighth note.  In the initial stages, both the conductor and the players will be helped if the conductor counts aloud “one and, two and, and” for a 5 pattern and “one and, two and, three and, and” for a seven pattern.

The approach effectively divides the bar into 2+3 for a five pattern and 2+2+3 for a seven pattern. Other divisions are also possible, of course. For a 3+2 division in a five pattern, for example, try conducting a standard two pattern while counting "one and, and, two and".

Interestingly enough, the approach I have outlined here is rather similar to the “floating” technique often adopted by many professional conductors when dealing with asymmetrical metrical patterns in fast tempos.

Fundamental Concepts

The Horizontal, Vertical and Intensity Planes
The Preparatory Beat and the Downbeat
The Up-ictus
The Cutoff


The Horizontal, Vertical and Intensity Planes

The horizontal, vertical and intensity planes mark out the space in which conducting gestures take place. Although there is some variation among conductors in this respect, the horizontal plane (from the left to the right of the body) is generally set at the chest area.

The vertical plane is centred slightly to the right of centre in front of the right shoulder. It extends from the conductor’s waist to the top of the head. Some textbooks on conducting suggest that the focus point, or fulcrum, where these two planes meet is also the general area where the left hand should rest when not in use. 

Space prohibits a detailed discussion of the role of the intensity plane. Basically, it refers to the extension and retraction of the arms closer to and away from the musicians. This plane is used to gain greater attention from the ensemble, either by reaching towards the players or by retracting the arms and executing smaller gestures. Both hands may use this plane simultaneously or one hand only may be employed.

  


The preparatory beat and the downbeat

An inadequately executed preparatory beat by the conductor is a common cause of poor attack by the ensemble.  Before beginning this beat it is important to assume the authoritative stance described earlier, with the arms and hands in the appropriate positions.  The conductor should then make eye contact with the performers before executing the movement shown in the accompanying diagram. 

As the hands move upward from the ready position, the conductor should inhale rather obviously as an additional indication of his intention. The ictus, sometimes known as the attack, is the actual starting point of the sound.  Its position is indicated to the performers in our diagram by the initial preparatory motion.

Not all conductors execute a downbeat in precisely this way, but it is often recommended as an important means of ensuring a clean attack.  Note also that both the preparatory and downbeat motions generally involve a snap or rebound just after the hand reaches the imaginary horizontal plane.  This rebound takes place at the wrist rather than of the forearm, and should generally be no more than half the length of the beat itself.  This is to avoid the suggestion that the following beat is also a downbeat (the one-beat pattern described later is an exception).  Only use the forearm when you want to indicate a heavy marcato style.  Each beat in any given pattern should have some rebound to it, with a legato style having more rebound than a staccato style. Anthony Maiello suggests that “The length and speed of the rebound indicates the actual amount of decay desired.  The longer the rebound, the longer the decay and vice versa” [Conducting: A Hands On Approach, Belwin Mills, Miami, 1996, p.21]

Don't hesitate at the top of a cycle.
A common problem with beginning conductors is the tendency to hesitate at the top of the cycle.  This confuses the ensemble and the resulting insecurity produces a poor attack. Failure to breathe with the ensemble can sometimes produce a similar effect. Even worse is a situation where a conductor asks his players to “get set” by taking a breath even before the downbeat sequence has begun. Both the players and the conductor should inhale during the preparatory beat, not before.

Practicing this sequence in front of a mirror can help, but it also important to practice the downbeat repeatedly in front of a live ensemble. This is the only way to ensure that one’s gestures are clear and definite. The initial preparatory beat can also give the performers other important information. Tempo is set by the speed of the sequence, volume by its size (larger gestures indicate louder volumes) and the style (legato, marcato and staccato) by the extent of the rebound from the horizontal plane.

 


The Up-ictus

A few conductors beat time in quite a different manner, with the ictus occurring at the top of the rebound instead of at the bottom of the beat.

The up-ictus is confusing.
Some choral conductors argue that the up-ictus imparts a lightness to the tone and helps singers keep a steady pitch. Elizabeth Green [The Modern Conductor, Prentice-Hall, New Jersey, 1997] notes that it can also be useful in waltzes, where a one beat pattern approached in this manner can add a welcome lilt to the performance. As a general rule, however, the up-ictus is confusing, and is therefore probably best avoided. The worst possible situation occurs when the conductor alternates between the down ictus and the up.

 

 


The Cutoff

The fermata and cutoff is yet another technical skill that should be mastered before moving on to the basic time beating patterns.  Many authorities approach this as an extension of the downbeat sequence described above.  A fermata is indicated as follows.  After executing the downbeat do not stop after the rebound from the ictus, but move the hand horizontally towards the right in the manner shown in the illustration

The continuous motion – sometimes called “travel” -- of the hand indicates that the conductor wishes the sound to continue.  Sometimes, a fermata is executed using both hands.  If you are doing this, then the left hand should move away from the body in mirror-like fashion.   Executing a quick loop and then stopping all movement indicates the cutoff.


 

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