A Composer on Conducting

Travis J. Weller | October November 2021

    One of the important responsibilities of conductor is to bring out the best performance in the players by focusing their collective energy to convey the artistic and emotional intent of the music. While considerable work on pedagogy and instrumental techniques occurs off the podium, band directors must project what the musicians should recreate in the performance. Before giving the first gesture for breath, directors should carefully consider the repertoire they are attempting to communicate.
    Directors should reflect on what the ensemble will take away from the repertoire and what they can contribute. Over an entire year of performances, it is vital that directors develop a sonic image in their mind for every piece they study and perform. Regardless of the difficulty level of the music or the skills of the ensemble, the sonic image provides a connection from which the director can draw inspiration. While there are limitations to written notation, the decision of how best to present the various artistic, emotional and pedagogical components of the work begins here.

Repertoire Considerations
    Bennett Reimer, the esteemed American music educator, suggested four characteristics to determine the quality of a composition including craftsmanship, sensitivity, authenticity, and imagination. These concepts are particularly helpful when selecting repertoire. Directors should also consider musical concepts, styles, eras, and composers from diverse backgrounds. While Reimer suggested these qualities as barometers for evaluating music, each has an additional application to directors in translating music through physical gestures from the podium to the ensemble.
    Craftsmanship demands that directors exhibit dexterity in posture, patterns, and gestures. Sensitivity requires that directors consider the emotional depth of the work and the range of feeling within the music. Directors demonstrate authenticity through the physical gesture and movement in the temporal and expressive plane. A director demonstrates imagination by interpreting emotions of the work with gestures and movements that compliment. Conducting is simply inviting the ensemble to realize the artistic intent that the composer has infused into the repertoire.

The Director’s Posture
    The posture of the director influences the ability to communicate the music. With the proper posture, the conductor expresses confidence in the players and full awareness of what the score demands (regardless of the level of the piece). Players have limited time to look up to the conductor for tempo, cues, and expression. Directors who maintain an upright and open posture are better able to provide the clarity, insight, and reminders in those brief moments when the players are observing the conductor. An upper body that is free, open and relaxed may provide the best posture for communicating to the ensemble.
    The face is at the apex of any director’s posture. Facial expressions should reflect the music’s character (sensitivity). Many esteemed conductors suggest practicing gestures in front of a mirror. As a gesture becomes more natural to the director, there is a stronger association and connection to the character of the music. The appropriate facial gestures complement and enhance the movements made by the hands as the music progresses (authenticity).

The Baton and Hand Gestures
    The baton becomes an integral partner in expressing and shaping the music, including the character of the first downbeat, adjustments to articulation, and even an invitation to grow the expressive contrast of the ensemble in a given passage (craftsmanship). Directors should use their baton as often as possible. In matters of sensitivity, the baton combines with facial expressions to establish a thoughtful first gesture that begins the music. Directors should insist that the ensemble respond to both the temporal and expressive dimensions established through the baton and facial expression used.
    While the baton hand (right) is primarily responsible for coordinating time across the ensemble, the off-hand (left) has different responsibilities. These include providing cues, shaping dynamics, and showing releases for sections. Gestures and cues should help to communicate and coordinate the efforts of the ensemble.
    To a further point, gestures and cues by the left hand communicate to other sections that something important has occurred, they should listen for it, and they should prepare for their future entrance or release. The other hand is critical for working with the face and inviting expressive response from the ensemble (imagination). Although some might think that the baton hand maintains time, directors should remind their ensemble that all players are responsible for keeping time throughout a piece. The director simply coordinates events that happen throughout the temporal dimension with the baton and off-hand.
    Directors may identify points when a mirrored pattern is necessary, but this movement should be used sparingly. The players in the ensemble have upward peripheral vision to notice changes in the conducting plane while still looking at their music. Directors should be aware that repeated use of mirroring will limit an ensemble’s
ability to react to cues and gestures (sensitivity). When the bulk of the conducting uses mirrored hands, the communication of the music can grow stagnant. By reserving the off-hand for cues, gestures, and shaping, players will notice its entrance into the plane and recognize the reminder for expression or entry that it provides.

Appropriate Cues
    Directors provide cues to the ensemble through one of three ways, akin to greeting someone at a social event. At points, a person might greet a friend with a simple head nod. So, to can the director cue a section through the use of a simple head nod or use of eye contact. As another person makes an appearance, the host of the event might greet them with a handshake or fist bump. In a similar way during a more active section of the music, the baton hand might provide a cue for a section to enter. The host might greet another attendee at the event with a warm embrace to convey elation upon seeing them. This idea is similar to the off-hand inviting a section of the ensemble to return to the sound canvas in a key section of the music.

Conducting Patterns
    Patterns can be repetitive, and unintentionally restrictive. Each phrase differs in its temporal and expressive dimensions. It is important for conductors to adjust patterns accordingly to convey music’s true identity. The field of the conducting plane is where the pattern resides and communicates the music. The pattern must be clear (craftsmanship), distinct (sensitivity and imagination), and appropriate (authenticity). Directors need to adjust their patterns in a responsive fashion to communicate with their ensemble and bring about the best possible recreation of the music.

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    While these thoughts on conducting are not exhaustive, they offer a point of departure for a larger conversation about communication from the podium for directors. Directors may not have considerable time in their daily schedule to analyze their own conducting to compare with the thoughts and suggestions in this overview. Directors might consider sharing a brief video recording of their own conducting with a trusted peer for critique and commentary. While self-evaluation is difficult for many directors, it may be helpful to collaborate with another director who shares a similar teaching context and compare conducting techniques. Conducting is just one part of successful teaching in instrumental music, and similar to discussion on rehearsal techniques or studio pedagogy, it only improves through sustained conversation and self-analysis.   

Reference Material
Reimer, Bennett. “Criteria for Quality in Music.” Aesthetics and Arts Education, edited by Ralph A. Smith and Alan Simpson, University of Illinois Press, 1991, pp. 330–338.