Friday, August 16, 2013

CONDUCTING: The Ultimate in Non-Verbal Communication

The conductor’s fundamental goal is to bring a written score to life, through study, personality and musical formation. But he or she makes music’s meaning clear through body motion.

“If you imagine trying to talk to somebody in a totally foreign language, and you wanted to express something to that person without the use of language, how would you do that?” the British conductor Harry Bicket said. “That’s really what you’re doing.”


Traditionally (for right-handers, at least), the right hand holds the baton and keeps the beat. It controls tempo — faster here, slower there — and indicates how many beats occur in a measure. The baton usually signals the beginning of a measure with a downward motion (the downbeat). An upward movement prepares for the downbeat. Conducting manuals say the upbeat and downbeat should take the same amount of time, and that interval should equal the length of the beat. “The upbeat is the preparation for any event,” said Alan Gilbert, the music director of the New York Philharmonic.
Setting the right tempo for a musical passage is critical. No less an authority than the composer Richard Wagner, also one of the first modern conductors, said the “whole duty of a conductor is comprised in his ability always to indicate the right tempo.” Yet a conductor is not a black-coat-and-tails-wearing metronome. “One of the big misconceptions of what conductors do is they stand there and beat time,” Mr. Bicket said. “Most orchestras don’t need anyone to keep time.”

But the baton can also shape the sound. The nature of the downbeat — how abrupt, how delicate — tells the orchestra what kind of sound character to produce. The baton can smooth out choppy phrases by moving through the beat in a more sweeping way. A more horizontal motion can create a more lyrical quality, said James DePreist, the former director of orchestral and conducting studies at the Juilliard School. A downward stroke that imitates a violin bowing movement, Mr. Bicket said, can color the attack. Even when beating time through long-held notes, Mr. Gilbert said, the conductor should be trying to communicate the sound quality through the movement of the baton.

Some conductors prefer at times, or all the time, not to use a baton. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who becomes the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra in September, is one. His training came mostly with choirs, for which batons are rarely used. “Basically the hands are there to describe a certain space of the sound and to shape that imaginary material,” Mr. Nézet-Séguin said. That imaginary  body of sound sits in front of the conductor, between the chest and the hands, he added. “It’s easier when there is nothing in one hand.” He started using a baton when he began guest-conducting at major orchestras, because they were more used to it.

A baton can work against a singing sound, he added. “Most difficult in conducting is to make the orchestra sing, and this is where both hands have to basically help wind or string players sing.” Hitting the air with a stick, he said, is like fencing: “I don’t think it helps the sound.”


The left hand, having turned over rhythmic duties to the right, serves a far more elastic purpose. Crudely put, if the right hand sketches the outlines of the painting, the left fills in the colors and textures. The right hand creates the chocolate shell of a bonbon, and the left hand fashions the filling. Its main practical use is to give cues to sections or individual players about when to enter and when to cut off, often with a pointed index finger. A pulling in of the left hand and a closing of the thumb and fingers can cause a phrase to taper away. A quick downward cupping clips off the sound.

Mr. DePreist ran through the sometimes inexplicable left-hand practices of others: William Steinberg would rub his fingers together, as in the universal symbol for money. Antal Dorati would make jabbing motions, as if he were “keeping a ball of sound up and floating.” Eugene Ormandy often kept his left hand curled around the lapel of his tailcoat while the Philadelphia Orchestra, Mr. DePreist noted, produced “torrents of sounds.”

At another Juilliard rehearsal Mr. Nézet-Séguin indicated entrances by making an O.K. circle or flicking open his index finger, for a lighter attack. A rising index finger with each beat indicated more volume. At loud chords, he cupped his hand upward. A downward cupped hand called for a sustained line. Pounding martial chords yielded a fist. A flat hand, palm downward, called for smoothness. Repeated entrances came with pistol shot motions.

Mr. Gilbert notes that professional musicians do not have to be told when in the measure to come in. He often prepares for a cue by looking at a player ahead of time, to establish a connection and to build energy. The purpose of a cue “is to have people join in at the right time in the right way, in the flow,” Mr. Gilbert said.


After the arms the most important part of the conductor’s arsenal is the face. “I feel as if my face is singing with the music,” Mr. Nézet-Séguin said. Engaging the musicians with a look can relax and encourage them. On the other hand, some conductors, like Fritz Reiner, kept their expressions unchanging, and his recordings are “completely electrifying,” Mr. Bicket said. Remaining without expression can be helpful for musician morale.

“To editorialize facially your displeasure or your frustration is not helpful to anybody,” Mr. Bicket said. Yet raised eyebrows can be subtle conveyors of dissatisfaction. The face becomes all the more important when the hands are otherwise occupied, as when a conductor simultaneously plays a keyboard, a common practice of early-music specialists like Mr. Bicket.

The eyes themselves “are the most important in all of conducting,” Ms. Zhang said. “The eyes should be the most telling in musical intent. The eyes are the window of the heart. They show how you feel about the music.”

A squint, for example, can convey a distant quality to the music, Mr. DePreist said. One trick to creating a good orchestral sound is to look at the players in the back of the string section. “You’re getting them in the game,” Mr. Nézet-Séguin said.

Excerpts from:

Connecting Music and Gesture: 

The Art of Conducting 

Legendary Conductors of a Golden Era 

"Conduct Us"
A New York orchestra pitched up on a street corner and simply put a sign up saying 'Conduct Us', and then filmed the results.  We put a Carnegie Hall orchestra in the middle of New York City and placed an empty podium in front of the musicians with a sign that read, "Conduct Us." Random New Yorkers who accepted the challenge were given the opportunity to conduct this world-class orchestra. The orchestra responded to the conductors, altering their tempo and performance accordingly.

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