Close this search box.

Matching Gestures with the Sound

Brian Shelton | November 2010

    It can be difficult for conductors to watch themselves conduct, and many don’t like to see what they’re doing because they don’t look like what they expect. As a professional conductor, I sometimes go a year or more without taping myself, and when I finally do, I see that many undesireable habits have resurfaced.

Expression and Posture

    The first thing I notice in my conducting videos is posture. People tend to slouch forward when they conduct. Some people think it’s musical to lean toward the group, but it is not. Musical expressiveness with the body starts with freedom to move as the music leads. My university conducting classes start each semester by doing some exercises designed to get the students comfortable moving to music.
    For the first exercise, students spread across the classroom, leaving ample space between one another. I play a 30- to 60-second excerpt of music twice, once for students simply to listen and again for them to move around the room in a manner that reflects the music. Some of the works on my playlist for this exercise include “Floret silva” from Orff’s Carmina Burana, Carlos Chavez’s Sinfonia India, “Colonial Song” by Grainger, Bright Blue Music by Michael Torke, and John Corigliano’s “Tarantella” from Gazebo Dances. Works with irregular meters, like Chavez’s Sinfonia India in 5/8, force students to think more acutely.
    After students become comfortable moving around the room to music, I repeat the exercise but this time ask them to plant their feet in a comfortable posture and move only the upper body and legs. As before, I will play the excerpt once to listen and again to move. The restricted foot movement simulates the feeling of conducting more closely and forces students to think about moving their bodies in a more restricted way.
Conducting is unique to each person, just as ten hornists will each bring different perspectives to the same orchestral excerpt. I start the semester with these exercises as the first step in encouraging students to find their voice.
    A conductor cannot fear how an ensemble reacts to particular movements. If movements are appropriate for the music, the ensemble will respect a conductor’s choices. A slouching posture, with the shoulders hunched forward slightly so the chest caves in and the elbows rest on the rib cage, conveys uncertainty. Students, especially younger ones, will notice if a teacher looks afraid and react to it. The moment a group thinks the teacher lacks confidence is the moment the teacher loses them. Even if a conductor is worried on the inside, he should look confident on the outside to gain players’ trust.
    Although I do not teach posture until students are relaxed and feel free to move to the music, it is still important. Stand in a comfortable position with the back straight and feet shoulder-width apart. The chest should not be out as in marching band, but the shoulders should be slightly back. Many will feel comfortable with one foot in front of the other, but each student has to find what looks and feels comfortable. The marionette exercise is a good way to find the right posture. Imagine a string going from each foot up through the ceiling, pulling the body up and down on its toes. This feeling helps the body support itself more comfortably. I don’t usually worry about foot position, but a conductor’s stance should be appropriate to the music.
    Conductors should understand the effect such physical traits as height have on their conducting. Tall conductors especially are prone to slouching forward to appear smaller, when their height can help establish a strong presence on the podium.

The Arms
    When watching video of yourself, it is also important to study the plane of conducting. A conductor should engage players with the arms, not the body. It can be easy to get into the habit of keeping the hands too high or too low. To find the right arm position, raise the right arm in a relaxed way and move the hand in front of the body. The wrist should point down, the hand in front of the ribcage, and the arm extended slightly with the elbow away from the body. Many of my students find the right position when they relax and have good posture but raise the arm too high and extend it too far if they are tense.
    Similarly, the size of someone’s gestures may not be appropriate to the music. Tall conductors should be careful that the horizontal strokes do not become needlessly large. Shorter people have shorter arms, so they have more freedom of movement than a taller person. A shorter armspan makes conducting look more natural even at larger sizes because the arms don’t cover as much space. Someone who is 5′ tall can conduct as powerfully as someone who is 6’5".
    I can always tell which of my conducting students were drum majors in high school, because these students often mirror everything, using huge gestures and stiff movement. A marching band needs a conductor who is precise and clear, but this style is generally too emphatic for a wind ensemble. It becomes like white noise, causing the band to stop responding and leaving no room to increase the size to show a crescendo. These students should relax the wrist, eliminate the left hand, and imagine conducting inside of a small box to limit the size.
    The wrist should be flexible but firm. This does not mean loose, which implies limpness rather than flexibility. A stiff wrist is equally harmful, and it should never lock. To find the correct firmness use the rubber band exercise: imagine pulling on a taut rubber band that is fastened to the floor, feeling the resistance while pulling up. Release the band but do not allow your wrist to flop down. Instead, let it bounce a bit. Next, with that firmness in the wrist, imagine bouncing a basketball. That bounce is the ictus, and the wrist should still not flop down because of the imagined weight of the ball. The bounce of the ball or ictus also generates a clear rebound. The force of gravity will cause the hand to slow slightly as it ascends and accelerate slightly as it descends, giving the ensemble a clear and predictable ictus.

Making a Face

    Conductors often struggle with finding effective facial expressions. Another exercise I have my conducting students do early each semester is designed to help overcome this. I call it the Silly Circle. Students stand in a circle almost shoulder to shoulder. One student makes an expressive or odd face and looks at the student to his left, who replicates the face and turns to the person to his left to make a different face. This continues around the circle as quickly as possible. Inevitably students begin to giggle, and some freeze because they are not sure what face to make.
    The Silly Circle is probably the most nerve-wracking thing students do in class other than actual conducting. When students are on the podium, the face they are making does not always look the way they think it does, and this exercise helps them to become aware of how different facial expressions feel. Frank Wickes once said that my facial expression looks like I’m sucking on lemons. It didn’t feel that way while on the podium, but when I watched the tape, he was exactly right.
    Students usually become em­barrassed during these exercises because it may be the first time they have performed this way in front of others. Looking silly and ridiculous is part of conducting at times, especially with younger bands. Stoicism does not work well with a class of sixth graders.
    Eye contact is essential. Some conductors are good at this, but others spend too much time looking at the music. I have also seen conductors who just look down without even looking at the music or who look above the entire group.

When to Beat

    It is easy for conductors to be­come too attached to beat patterns, but the conductor’s primary job is not to keep time, it is to express how the music should sound to an ensemble. If the primary focus of conducting study is technique, then every conductor will look the same – a rigid, emotionless timekeeper.
    Expressive conducting requires the freedom to move within patterns and change, subdivide, or combine measures when necessary. Sometimes it helps to stop conducting altogether. At the end of the second section of William Schuman’s George Washington Bridge, for example, the ensemble plays staccato eighth notes with a timpani solo underneath. I often stop conducting here because the momentum of the music is so strong there is no need for a conductor. It also helps to float between meters when the pulse shifts, such as from 4/4 to cut time.
    Some music suggests conducting across the bar lines. In H. Owen Reed’s La Fiesta Mexicana, the end of the 3/8 section is not really in 3/8, but consists of groupings of fours, threes, and twos. The music is clearer when the conductor beats those groupings instead of the written meter. The caveat is that these shifts should be logical enough for the ensemble to follow. Students may watch too closely and shift into half time when the conductor’s pattern changes from four to two, but they will come to understand these shifts and know that the tempo will never change suddenly unless the music says so.
    I do not even introduce patterns until two or three weeks into conducting class, after students feel comfortable with their body, posture, arms, and wrists. That way the pattern stems from familiar motions. The main purpose of patterns is to provide clarity to an ensemble, so one of the most important qualities in any pattern is predictability. Players must be able not only to follow but to anticipate where the beat will land; otherwise following the conductor becomes a guessing game. This allows them to concentrate on being relaxed and allowing gravity to guide the rebound, as in the basketball exercise. Tension can detract from a pattern’s clarity.
I believe that 3/4 is the easiest pattern to conduct. Even though people think of 4/4 as common time, having those three beats – down, out, up – feels natural. Also, because almost every pattern uses something similar to the last two beats of 3/4, it’s the most useful: down and then the last two beats.
    The second beat of 4/4 going in isn’t quite as natural as going down, out, up. Conducting should always feel natural, and I find that 3/4 is the most natural pattern.

Score Study

    Score study is to conducting what practicing is to an instrument. Decisions about how to conduct on the podium come from the score. Sometimes my conducting students are unsure of how they want a passage to sound. When this happens, I encourage them to talk through the music, saying anything they can about it. This generally leads to a solution.

    Conductors have to have a dozen ways of saying everything. I was rehearsing articulation in a piece called Cathedrals, which has a 26-measure section with constant eighth notes. I tried one set of syllables and one set of imagery, and when that didn’t work I tried a different one. I tried different images, sang for them, and told them to pretend they were playing straight eighth notes in the place of rests. There comes a point of diminishing returns at which a piece is best put aside for another day.
    What helps this is to know your students and be able to meet them at their level. I teach in south Texas but am originally from northern Illinois. I have plenty of stories about snow and cold weather, but they are useless in this part of Texas where neither occurs with any regularity.
    Input from the ensemble is desirable when interpreting the music, but how much to expect depends on the level of the group. The older the students get, the more I want their musical ideas through their instruments. If I disagree with something, I will help students find my interpretation. I ask a lot of questions in rehearsal. I say, “Where’s the peak of this phrase?” or “How should we accent this note?” If I disagree with an answer, I explain why I want it a different way. I always tell my band students to try things. My favorite players are the ones to whom I have to say, “That’s an interesting idea, but don’t do it again.” In the end, it is my interpretation, my view of the direction we’re going to go but I try to get them to understand and shape them to that direction as opposed to imposing it on them. Imposition is neither musical nor creative.
    A conductor’s job is for students to leave rehearsal understanding the shape, direction, and character of the music. For students to be able to play something, they have to be able to understand the music.
Even experienced educators should check themselves periodically by returning to basic exercises and recording their conducting. The exercises I do with my students are silly, but they help them to relax and open up. Conducting is about expressing something and drawing that sound from the players, and stiff or exaggerated bodily motion will prevent that. Seeing just 30 seconds of your conducting should be enough. It can be uncomfortable to watch, but it is necessary.