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Ten Common Conducting Problems

Jim Shaw | September 2013

    One of the most frustrating things I hear from directors of young bands is “How good a conductor do I really have to be? It’s just junior high band.” The level of conducting prowess or artistic expression required to conduct a professional orchestra may be more rigorous than that needed to work with a typical middle school band, but a conductor with bad habits can do much more damage to a young ensemble than he can a more experienced group. Here are ten common conducting problems that can hinder a young band’s ability to perform well.

    When the left hand mirrors what the right hand is doing, it diminishes the left hand’s ability to give cues, show dynamic changes, and indicate musical nuance. Band members can become desensitized to the left hand, much the same way that reading text in all capital letters desensitizes readers to points of emphasis in a written passage. There are times where mirrored conducting is appropriate, but it should be used sparingly for strong full ensemble passages or to emphasize rhythm or pulse in a given section of the music. It should never be someone’s default conducting style.

A Floating Ictus
    The point of the ictus – the bounce of the baton where the beat occurs – should be fairly consistent. When ictus placement is all over the place, it is difficult for players to follow what is going on. What a conductor may believe is expressive conducting is perceived by students as a mess.
    Two snare drum players practice side by side for 30 minutes, going through a regimen of rudiments and rolls. If one percussionist leaves stick marks all over the drum head while the other leaves markings only in a circular area slightly smaller in diameter than the size of a dime, it is easy to figure out which player is more consistent. In many ways, the clarity of one’s conducting works in a similar fashion. The smaller the diameter of the target area one strikes, the clearer the beat becomes.

An Expanding Pattern
When a conductor perceives ensemble timing problems or feels that the members are not watching, the first impulse is usually to make the conducting pattern larger, perhaps with more force behind the motion. However, by increasing the size of the pattern, the conductor has actually made it easier for ensemble members to keep their eyes buried in the music. The better approach is to minimize the size of the pattern and gestures. This draws ensemble members in and forces them to look up. An excessively large conducting pattern is akin to shouting. I knew I was in trouble if one of my parents yelled at me, but they really got my attention when they talked to me with the intense whisper that all parents do so well.

Conducting at the Ensemble
    Some directors conduct on more of a horizontal plane than a vertical one, with the ictus and pattern moving toward the band instead of up and down. Horizontal conducting is incredibly difficult for students to read, especially those in the front rows who see the conductor at an angle of 20° or greater. The conductor should visualize the point of the baton bouncing off of a table, not the wall.

Too Many Preparatory Beats
    The more prep beats one gives, the greater the chance that someone will play early or the ensemble will play imprecisely because of students already looking at their music before the first beat. It can be argued that a full measure of conducting helps a young group establish tempo and breathe together, but even beginners can be trained quickly to breathe together and play in time with only a one-beat prep. A band trained this way is also usually better able to handle tempo changes.

Out-of-Tempo Preparatory Beat
    Giving a preparatory beat in a different tempo than the director intends for the piece is a recipe for disaster. Moving early on the prep, moving too abruptly, or allowing the baton to dip slightly as the preparatory motion is made are common problems. To make sure that the prep is in tempo, the conductor should count a full measure mentally, moving immediately after the beat that precedes the first note of the piece. It is better to think of giving a prep as joining the tempo than initiating it.
    A good way for the conductor to test whether the preparatory beat is clear enough for students to pick up the tempo is to give just a prep beat and instruct ensemble members to count the subdivision in the tempo given. This exercise can be done in different tempos, and, if the prep is clear, band members will catch the intended tempo every time.

Too Much Information
    A conductor only has two arms and cannot show everything, but some try to do so anyway. At times, a conductor can be trying to show so much that the important information is lost in the clutter. When my band has trouble following or is not responding to a gesture, I find I am much more likely to get the desired result by simplifying the gesture and eliminating extraneous motion. In other words, filter out the noise.

Trying to Hold It All Together
    Many directors have experienced the soreness that accompanies trying to get an ensemble to stop dragging. It is easy to feel that we can, by sheer physical effort, pull the band back to the desired tempo. Unfortunately, once the ensemble starts, the director has little control of the tempo. The best way to make sure that a steady tempo will be maintained is to put the responsibility for keeping it back on ensemble members.
    To improve students’ awareness of tempo, start the group and then stop conducting and step off of the podium. The first time I tried this was eye-opening. Students held the tempo and listened to each other much better than they did when I conducted. It told me that I was working too hard, trying to take on too much of the load. Having the band play without a conductor forces the musicians to internalize the tempo. Then when the conductor is added back to the mix, there is more freedom to show style, make gestures to correct balance, and give cues, rather than be a human metronome.
    As the tempo gets faster, students become tense and work too hard. This tension works against the ability to maintain the speed and usually leads to heavy articulations and playing style. Another problem at faster tempos is that students who tap their foot can become fatigued and slow down. Try having students play the passage in question without tapping.

Conducting Too High
    An ictus plane that is too high limits what a conductor can show in terms of style, nuance, and dynamics. My college band director and conducting teacher, Gary Garner, is fond of saying, “Low is where the power is.” Not only does the conductor have a larger expressive palette to paint from when the conducting is lower, it is also possible to put more impulse of will behind gestures, including the all-important preparatory beat.

Ignorance Is Not Musical Bliss
    A conductor’s skill is irrelevant if players have not been taught both to look up and to respond to what they see. Young band students do not inherently look up; it is a skill that must be addressed just like any other fundamental of playing. A good game to encourage students to watch is to hold up a number of fingers for no more than a few measures and then ask a random band member what number was shown. I like to play another game with students where I will look at a band member, and if he looks up within the measure, we keep going and I move to someone else. We stop when a player fails to look up at me within a measure of music.
    Hand in hand with looking up is the expectation that students will respond to what they see. The more the director can hold students’ feet to the fire about this early in the year, the more responsive a young group will be when it come time to perform.