Some Refinements


The Melded Gesture and the Dead Beat
The Anacrusis and the Fractional Pickup
The Fermata

The Melded Gesture

In introducing the downbeat gesture I pointed out that each beat in any metric pattern should have at least some rebound to it. The melded gesture and the dead beat, however, are important exceptions.

Elizabeth Green first introduced the term “melded beat” into the literature, and it has become an important part of the conducting vocabulary ever since. She defines it as “the combining of two or more time-beating gestures into one long sustained gesture that has a duration equal to the combined beats" [The Modern Conductor, page 138].

Sometimes, the melded gesture can be used to follow a melody. 
A clear ictus is given at the beginning of the note, but subsequent icti are indistinct and devoid of rebound until the beginning of the next note.  In other words, the conductor retains the general pattern of the meter, but conducts the music rather than the beats.   Such an approach works well when the entire ensemble is playing the same rhythm.  Sometimes, the conductor can also use melded gestures to follow the melody (other parts being rhymically different), but only as long as the absence of a clear rebound on other icti do not confuse the ensemble.

Whereas the melded gesture can be quite large, the dead beat is a very small, passive gesture.  It is employed when the music demands total silence from the entire ensemble.  Properly used -- particularly in front of a secondary school band -- it can be very effective in ensuring that the music is played well.  Should the conductor execute a regular “live” beat in such circumstances, many inexperienced performers may be tempted to play during the rests.  The most common circumstance requiring dead beat conducting occurs is at the end of classical-style pieces, where massive quarter note chords from the entire ensemble are indispersed with rests just before the final cadence.  

The Anacrusis and the fractional pickup

Earlier, we discussed the importance of the preparatory beat in ensuring clean attacks on the downbeat i.e. on the first beat of the bar.  But what happens if the music begins on the second, third or last beat of the bar?  The answer is that the beat before the music begins is treated as the preparatory beat.  This means that if the ensemble is to begin playing on beat two, then beat one is the preparatory beat.  Similarly, if the music begins on beat three, then beat two becomes the preparatory beat.  And so on.

Take a look at the following example:

The following diagram illustrates how the entrance should be conducted.  Notice in particular (1) the relatively short preparatory beat (dotted line), and (2) the downward movement towards beat two.

The brief preparatory beat is intended to help prevent “double preps”, while the downward movement towards the second beat is consistent with the principle advocated by Kohut and Grant [Learning to Conduct and Rehearse, Prentice-Hall, Englewood cliffs, N.J., 1990] that the first beat of any piece, no matter where it falls, should have the general character of a downbeat. To ensure clean attacks it is also helpful if the preparatory beat is given a gentler ictus than the one that actually signals the beginning of the music.  Entrances on beats three and four involve similar principles.

How can an upbeat be made to look like a downbeat?
Music beginning on the last beat of the bar (as in the next example) may appear to present something of a problem since the final beat of the bar is normally conducted as an upbeat.  How can an upbeat be made to look like a downbeat and thus satisfy the general principle adopted earlier, i.e. that as far as possible the beat that actually starts the music should look like a downbeat? Consider the following extract.  How should it be conducted?

The following diagram presents a common solution.

Remember to make the preparatory beat – in this case beat three – fairly short.

Fractional pickups look rather more complicated, but are not necessarily so.  In all such cases, the music is conducted as if the attack fell on the preceding beat.  The following example would be conducted as if the attack fell on the third beat of the bar.  Thus, the preparatory beat would be on beat two:

Here is the appropriate gesture:



Apart from maintaining a steady pulse and clear icti, one of the most difficult skills for a conductor to master is the ability to move each hand independently.  Nowhere is this more apparent than when giving cues.   This is because the left hand gives most cues while the right hand continues with the established pattern.

Make eye contact whenever possible.
To cue, motion slightly towards the recipient, palm toward the floor and middle fingers together.  If you wish, however, you may “invite” someone to play by turning the palm upwards slightly before the entry beat.  Make eye contact whenever possible, but avoid leaning in towards the performers.

Because it is so difficult to do well, cueing requires considerable practice in front of a mirror before the left hand is able to cue smoothly without being influenced by the rhythmic motion of the right.  Practice left hand cueing on beat one, beat two, beat three and so on, while maintaining a steady pattern with the right hand.

Do not cross your arms. 
Cueing can also be done with the baton.   This is somewhat easier.  Here, the cue looks more like a special time beating gesture and is directed specifically towards players on the conductor’s right.  The conductor turns and faces the performers concerned before executing the cue.  Some authorities also suggest that the conductor diminish the size of the beats leading up the baton cue in order to make the cueing movement more obvious.  Cueing with the baton is done to avoid confusing the ensemble by crossing arms – something that would be necessary if the left hand attempted to cue performers on the conductor’s right.

Cues can also be executed using both hands.  This is especially so when the conductor wishes to indicate an important entrance involving the entire ensemble.

In all cases, the conductor should make eye contact with the performers before giving a preparatory gesture preceding the entrance. The conductor’s facial expression must also be supportive.  This is particularly important in cases where the cue amounts to little more than a nod of the head.

Cues are normally given under the following circumstances:

[For a more complete list, see Elizabeth Green, The Modern Conductor, page 92]

Not all such events require cues, of course. It is up to the conductor to decide which entrances require cues and which do not. In any event, cues must be consistent. This is the best way to ensure dependable entrances.

The Fermata

"Every fermata" notes Elizabeth Green, “is a law unto itself." Indeed, the subject is so complex that many textbooks on conducting devote whole chapters to a consideration of the correct way in which they should be handled.  Space prohibits such treatment here, of course.  What follows instead is an outline of a few basic principles.

The length of a fermata is up to the conductor to decide.
The fermata involves a temporary cessation of the rhythmic pulse of the music.  But while the conductor stops beating time, it is usually not advisable to have the baton stand still.  To do so would risk having the ensemble play a diminuendo or stop playing altogether.  Instead, the baton continues to move slowly along the horizontal plane to indicate that the sound should be sustained.   Just how long the fermata is held is for the conductor to decide.  It is important to remember, however, that the note over which the fermata is placed should be longer than its written value.  This is a point that amateur conductors often forget.

There are basically three ways to end a fermata.  They are

  • Cut off the sound completely,
  • Allow only a slight break in the sound, and
  • To lead directly into the next note with no break in between.

The first type is often marked with a cesura (//) in the score.  It requires a preparatory beat before the next attack.  The second type does not require such a preparatory beat. Instead, the cut-off acts as the preparatory beat.  Such fermatas are sometimes indicated in the score with an apostrophe mark (‘).  The final type of fermata is perhaps the most difficult to execute smoothly.  In this case, the preparation for the next attack is actually a continuation of the “traveling” movement of the baton.

Deciding which cutoff to use is not easy. 
Many conductors who feel insecure when executing a fermata resort to a complete cut off (cesura) regardless of whether or not this is the composer’s intention.  As a result, they are rarely correct.   In most cases, the second type of cutoff is probably the one intended -- regardless of whether or not the apostrophe is specifically indicated in the score.  Deciding which type of cutoff to execute is not easy, however,

and you should really read more detailed texts for further guidance. [Apart from the conducting textbooks already mentioned, the following reference may also prove helpful: Max Rudolph, The Grammar of Conducting, Schrimer Books, Second Edition, 1980, pages 180-195]

Two other problems associated with fermatas are also worthy of mention.  The first involves the correct way to handle a fermata that appears over a rest, as in the following illustration:

In this case the baton stops on two and does not move during the fermata rest.   Then the conductor makes the usual preparatory gesture to indicate the first beat of the next bar.  In such cases, the length of the silence is influenced by what preceded the fermata.  In general, massive forte chords or very soft passages imply that a longer period of silence is required.

Yet another problem that confuses inexperienced conductors is what to do when a fermata is placed over a moving line. Some conductors resort to holding the first fermata in the left hand while continuing the beat time with the right until they arrive at the second fermata.  This is far from satisfactory, however.  It looks awkward and tends to confuse those members of the ensemble that still have notes to play.  A far better solution is to continue beating time until the last beat of the moving voice.  This is, after all, where the real fermata begins.