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Five-Minute Conducting Gesture Workout

Paul De Cinque | November 2016

    The beginning of a new school year is the second time in each year that I make some new year’s resolutions. Although the resolutions I make in January are generally personal, my August resolutions are always musical goals. In past years, I have resolved to be more patient, do more score study, learn student names faster, and pick better repertoire, but one resolution I make every year is to learn to be a better conductor. I want a bigger range of gestures, more efficient rehearsals, and to be a better communicator to my students. Conducting matters little if gestures and facial expressions fail to communicate anything about the music.
    Then October hits. Regardless of whether my summer was full of inspirational conducting workshops and musical moments, or a relaxing and refreshing break, the inevitability of paperwork and the other mundane aspects of teaching get in the way of being the best conductor I can be. To combat this I created a short set of daily exercises to refine my conducting gestures throughout the year. These daily exercises are a reminder that if we want students to look up during rehearsal, we have to give them something useful to watch.

Training Exercise 4 Reversed
    In Elizabeth Green’s The Modern Conductor, the second part of the fourth training exercise is to move the right arm through the horizontal plane and the left arm through the vertical plane. Start with this exercise as Green indicates; once you feel each arm is independent, shift to a time-beating gesture in the right hand. Make sure the left arm continues to follow the smooth vertical plane as the gesture in the right hand changes.
    Once I am happy with this second step, I start to explore different planes with my left arm. Use the vertical plane, the horizontal plane, and any and all diagonal planes. By exploring all the spaces the left arm can use, you will continue to reinforce independence between arms.

Move Joints Separately
    Developing as a conductor in graduate school was exciting and challenging. I remember finishing rehearsals being pleased, thinking that I had conducted predominantly from my wrist joint. I was always disappointed afterwards when I watched the video, which showed most of my motion coming from the elbow joint. Now, I frequently remind myself and my students, that small, economical gestures can be much more effective than large gestures. This exercise is designed to help isolate different joints.
    Set a metronome to a slow tempo (72 is a good starting point), and conduct a one-beat-per-bar beat pattern with a baton. For the first four counts, move only from the wrist, then the next four counts from the elbow, and another four counts from the shoulder. I then continue with the exercise in reverse, finishing back with the wrist. As you move to the bigger joints, avoid locking the smaller ones. For example, your wrist shouldn’t be stiff when your elbow is moving. This exercise should not be done too quickly; shoulder movements at a fast tempo are difficult to control effectively.
    The next step is to vary the articulation style of each beat. Wrist gestures can be more staccato, while shoulder gestures will naturally become more legato. This exercise should improve the ability to show soft and light, which is most easily shown from the writst. It also helps avoid the slowdown that comes with increasingly large beat patterns.

Varying Articulations
    Given that we want students to use different articulations and note lengths based on the composer’s instructions, we should also reproduce these effects in our conducting. For this exercise, access to a mirror is helpful.
    Begin conducting a common time pattern, alternating measures of staccato and legato. Focus on showing the different beat styles clearly through gesture. From common time, change to triple time and then duple time. Green recommends telegraphing a style change during the preparatory gesture for the first sound in the new style; the change between legato and staccato over the barline in measure one should be shown in the rebound/preparatory gesture between beat four and one.

    Try adding other articulation patterns as well. Conducting tenuto instead of legato or accents instead of staccato provide an extra level of challenge. If you have a colleague at your school, work together. Do the exercise but repeat measure one multiple times before moving to the staccato in measure two. Make sure your colleague can easily understand your gesture and can sing the note lengths and styles accurately as you make the transition.

Changing Meter Exercises
    Regardless of the difficulty of our ensemble’s music, an internal sense of pulse can never be too strong. I begin by writing a short passage including a variety of meters. Depending on your skill level, you may want to start with simple meters (2/4, 3/4, or 4/4), or a variety of compound (6/8, 9/8, or 128) and simple meters. When you are comfortable swapping between compound and simple, add in some 2 + 3 compound meters, such as the 58 measure in the example below.

    To conduct these exercises, I set my metronome to constant eighth notes; a good starting point is 240 eighth notes per minute. Try conducting the quarter note beats with mostly wrist and the dotted quarter note beats with mostly elbow movement. If you are working with a colleague, see if he can read the subdivisions without knowing your pattern by subdividing audibly. If you are working alone, you could try filming the pattern and then do the subdivision yourself while watching the video. Once you feel comfortable, try conducting your daily pattern without the metronome and see if you can hold a steady pulse throughout.

What Five Minutes Cannot Fix
    Although these four quick exercises help improve conducting gestures, listening and diagnostic skills are more difficult to address in a daily five-minute session. To work on this aspect of your conducting, make sure you are listening to and making high-quality music as often as possible. I like to go to my local professional orchestra and listen to concerts on the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s Digital Concert Hall throughout the school year. Also, join an ensemble that performs at a high level. I always strive to be the best musician possible; I believe being a good trumpet player still helps me be a good conductor.
    In addition, make sure to listen to your ensemble outside of rehearsal. A daily commute can be an excellent time to do this. High-quality audio recorders are reasonably inexpensive; record rehearsals. Listening back helps make apparent things that were missed during rehearsal.
    Finally, make sure to videotape yourself on the podium regularly. Watching a video of oneself leading a rehearsal can be an eye-opening experience, considering that someone’s mental picture of our podium presence can be different from reality, but it can be a rewarding experience as well. Having the opportunity to see your gestures and hear your teaching explanations is vital to continued development.

    Find five minutes to put aside each day to work on your conducting. Great conducting might not help trumpet players remember the fingering for G# or help violinists remember whether to use a high or low second finger, but it will help us continue to refine our repertoire of gestures. Surely that, along more efficient and effective rehearsals, is worth the time.