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Someone explain the act of Conducting


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I love to watch John conduct, or most anyone really, but I have no idea what the movements of the arms are actually telling the players.

Please someone elighten me.

Joe, ignorant on conducting(and many other things).

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He can with his arms create a certain motion for the musicians to follow, also (of course) it's tempos to guide and help the musicians coming in on the right places in the music (say a trumpeter has an important part but had 70 bars pause before it, he's most likely gonna need a confirmation on when to actually start). I guess that's pretty much it, the musicians are the ones doing the music under the guidance of the conductor :music:

Magnus - Who is (hopefully) gonna study conducting in a few years.

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I love to watch John conduct, or most anyone really, but I have no idea what the movements of the arms are actually telling the players.

Please someone elighten me.

Joe, ignorant on conducting(and many other things).

HPFAN, who is also ignorant on conducting and was going to ask this question, and appreciates JoeinAr doing it first.

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Here's an amateur observation:

Conductors help the orchestra keep time. That's especially helpful in non-melodic scores, like "Minority Report." A score that's written in 4/4 requires the conductor to help the orchestra know where the upbeats and downbeats are. It also, as Magnus said, helps a section know when to start playing.

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Well...here's what conductors have to do.

The part you don't watch is the time when they have to polish all of the music with the orchestra. This can be extremely tedious. You have to make sure every dynamic is as close to perfect as possible...make sure everybody locks in with tempo...make sure all of the notes are correct.

Conductors also have to study the music themselves...memorize every note. They then have to come up with ways of expressing what they want to the orchestra...through arm motions...and believe it or not...facial movement. That's the reason Johnny wears all of those black turtlenecks...the black makes you focus on the only colorful parts...his head and his hands!

Conducting entails so much more than keeping beat. Any musician can do that...and I guarentee that the London Symphony Orchestra can play through most of Williams pieces without him...BUT...would it sound so musical? I doubt it...conductors have to coax the musicians into playing well together in a certain style.

Their facial expressions convey the terror...or glee of music...and easily can make a player reduce volume...or back away with a simple shake of the head.

Also...if you've picked up on this...John Williams sometimes shakes his hand near his head quickly while looking at the violinists...this means play with more vibrato...evoke more emotion!

The art of conducting could be studied for ages...and still not truly explained...I recommend any Leonard Bernstein book for some extra insights on conducting! Take care!

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Funny you should speak of facial expressions used to conduct, when I started to listen classical music it was on videos of JW and the Pops, and I always think of Nicolai's Overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor and he makes the funniest faces, now I'm accostumed to watching this but at the time I couldn't help but smile.

:music: Williams Celebration 2000

Recording Arts Orchestra of Los Angeles

John Williams

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Here's my two cents:

The most important man in the orchestra (on a professional level and for concerts, not film), so far as beat and cues etc. is NOT the conductor, but rather the concertmaster. This sounds really strange, and conductors won't agree with it, but everyone else in the orchestra certainly does!

Why?

Well, it's very simple.

Usually, a conductor is responsible for keep beat etc., but is also responsible for controlling the expression and interpretation of the orchestra. This eventually leads to a blur as conductors focus more on the latter. Some conductors (such as Osawa) can do both, but those considered the best really are so because of their intepretive skills (ever watch Boulez conduct? Williams does this too!).

In film music, however, the conductor must be extremely precise. It is very difficult to conduct both for film AND concert, and hence why there are very few who do. In this regard, Williams is a great conductor, and arguably much better as a conductor than a composer (arguably that is!). When conducting with film, the conductor watches the film which has timecode, as well as punches, streamers, and other aids to keep him as precise as possible. Furthermore, the conductor and every member of the orchestra listen to the click track.

Also, on an interesting note, JW, like MANY (and I emphasize many!) conductors actually conduct AHEAD of the beat. You will see, for instance, JW give a downbeat even as much as a full beat ahead of it. The primary reason for doing this is to increase the intensity of the music.

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Wow...I'm glad there's a thread like this to push old stuff outta my brain... This is some good reading. Now we can know what went wrong on the Fourth of July.

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>>Also, on an interesting note, JW, like MANY (and I emphasize many!) conductors actually conduct AHEAD of the beat. You will see, for instance, JW give a downbeat even as much as a full beat ahead of it. The primary reason for doing this is to increase the intensity of the music.

I've heard this is mainly a European thing and that most US orchestras have conductors who conduct on the beat. Is this true? (If I recall correctly, this is from Performance Today)

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Oh man...I HATE it when conductors I'm under do that.

It just messes me up because I"m so used to traditional on the beat conducting.

Yes...Williams does this sometimes...he changes his downbeat (where the pulse is) from down to up...it can be kind of odd to watch. It's mainly to push the orchestra ahead...and it's used sparingly...Williams mostly conducts traditionally...but when he's pushing the orchestra...any conductor with some smarts would drive the tempo.

But there is a great danger with conducting like this...because...well...as the phrase go...an orchestra going to slow is still under your controll...but an orchestra going too fast is bound to create a problem.

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Conducting can be done in 2, 3, and 4's. In every situation, you always start with the downbeat. It's a good thing to know the tempo as well as counting and leading through important changes in dynamics or tempo. The right hand is used to conduct the beat. The left hand is there to add emphasis to what the right hand is conducting.

Starting from the top:

If you conduct in 2's, it's a simple Down, Up.

If you conduct in 3's, its Down, Right, Up.

If you conduct in 4's, its Down, Left, Right, Up.

You should try it by popping in a cd, and seeing if you can conduct it.

An Easy example: Jingle Bells

A Moderate example: Fur Elise, The Science Theme on the Hulk

A hard ass example: Burly Brawl Don Davis-The Matrix Reloaded Soundtrack)

There are all examples of what you can start out conducting to. I wouldnt recommend the last one though, but if you can do it, do it.

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Even more complicated measures are of course possible, but they are typically conducted using the above as a base. For instance, 5/4 (is in the beginning of Holst's "Mars") is usually done as 2+3 or 3+2 depending on the feel of the music. The opening (and other parts) of "Mars" has the beat triplet 8ths, quarter, quarter, (duplet) 8ths, quarter so there's a logical division between the third and fourth beats and hence this would almost certainly be conducted in 3+2. I've played a bit in 7/4 in the Walton violin concerto, and that was I think conducted as 3+2+2, though with other piceces other divisions would be appropriate.

What I mean by 3+2 is that you'd go down, right, up, down, up as if the time signature kept changing 3-count 2-count 3-count 2-count with the exception that you may not emphasize the downs movements in the middle of the measure as much as normal. Also, there may be other slight differences. Like I've thought that if I were to ever conduct "Mars" I'd go left rather than right for the 3/4 part as then the pattern would look like big down, left, small up, small down and right, big up.

The reason is there's a slight complication; in slower 2-count the motion won't be exactly down up, it will swing out to the left a bit and back up, almost as if you're drawing a backwards J. This makes it easier to find beat 2 as it happens not as the hand starts to trace the J back up but rather when the baton/hand gets to the lowest point on the J. This gives the musicians a tiny bit of warning so they can better anticipate. In fast 2-count, there's not as much time to do this as well as less reason so the rightward swing diminishes and disappears with ]an increase in tempo

I changed my mind partly through this as to how I was going to number beats. Originally for instance instead of writing "the time signature kept changing 3-count 2-count 3-count 2-count" I had "the time signature kept changing 3/4 2/4t 3/4 2/4". However, this is not necessary. For instance, you'd conduct 5/8 the same way you'd conduct 5/4 at twice the tempo, i.e. 3+2 or somtihng similar. Furthermore, sometimes 4/4 will be too fast to conduct elegantly in 4-count, so it will be conducted as if it were 2/2, i.e. 2-count. Along the same lines, sometimes (especially in rehersals) conductors and orchestras will work better if a 2/2 part is conducted in 4-count. So the time signature doesn't tell the whole story.

(I dunno if the <i>n</i>-count notation I chose is standard, but it makes sense at least to me so I'm sticking with it.)

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This is all very interesting. And therefore leads me to another question: Measure changes. E.g. when Stravinsky switches from 7/8 to 6/8 to 5/8 etc. (or something like that) in Sacre, or Goldsmith's typical odd measure in his odd-rhythm action cues. Does the conductor indicate these at all? I imagine they can't be too easy for the orchestra to handle.

Marian - who'd like to be able to conduct.

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You mean meter changes. Here's an example of how that would work:

By the way, meter changes are my conducting strength!

7/8 to 6/8 to 5/8:

The 7/8 (3+2+2) would be conducted as:

Down to the (conductor's) left and hold for 3 eighths

Across to the right for 2 eighths

Up for 2 eighths

The 6/8 would be:

Down to the right for 3 eighths with much emphasis

Up for 3 eighths

Then the 5/8 (2+3) would be:

Down to the right for 2 eighths with much emphasis

Up for 3 eighths

However, even though 5/8 as 2+3 is normal conducted on the conductor's right side, one may actually want to switch to the left to clarify because the 6/8 and the 5/8 may look similar depending on the conductor.

What's even more fun is polymeters and polyrhythms. Le Sacre is infamous for this. Try conducting 3 in the left hand and 4 in the right. If you can do it, then maybe you should consider becoming a conductor!

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I hope you all don't mind the opinion of a professional horn player. I have had the great opportunity to play under great conductors like Ozawa, Tilson-Thomas,Conlon, Schwarz and Abbado.

It is curious to hear the views here. I take it that they all come

from audience observations (??). Conducting is for some the

most important part of music making and for other means

very little. Someone mentioned that most of the work that

a conductor does is preparing the music during rehearsals..this

hit the nail right on the head. The conductor must intrepret

the composers intent. This is often hard as most of them

are dead and you can't call them up! LOL The yardstick

that measures great conductors is what they do in

rehearsal and what they say NOT the hand waving. I can

assure you that any professional musician would sound

the same wether looking at a conductor or a blinking

light. The music comes from within, not off the end of

a stick.

I might also mention that conductors, or music directors, also

take on much behind the scenes work...artistic decisions if

you must...who to hire, who to cut, what to program, which

edition of music to use, what bowings...etc This is why they

are paid the big bucks (6 figures for most now a days)

So why the hand flapping? The great conductors can show

a certain sound with just subtle move. Most of the time

it may be just a facial expression that maybe only a solist

and the conductor would share, but for the most part the

work has been done in the rehearsals and now it is the

performers that must shine.

As far as playing behind and ahead of the beat, this is simple. The reaction is ALWAYS from the orchestra. The conductor must make the first move...how the orchestra reacts is up to them. I can tell you that most play behind the beat. If you think about it in order to play an entrance together all say 80 musicians must start together. Try getting 80 adults

to snap their fingers together at the same time using only one hand! Now try that with 80 people who must all do something different in order to make the sound start! Musicians with experience know how to react to that first downbeat and are able to play it all toghether (hopefully).

As far as mixed meter and odd time signatures such as 7/8, 5/4, 12/16, they are actually very simple. 6/8 is 6 eight notes to a bar usually divided into 2 so you would have ... ... the conductor would give a down beat (beat 1) and an upbeat (beat 4). 7/8 would still be and downbeat and an upbeat, except one of the groupings would be an eight note longer either 3+4 or 4+3.....If anyone is familiar with the jazz chart take 5 then you

are familiar with odd gorupings 5/8 in that case 3+2. Other famous examples that come to mind are the 3rd mvt of Tch 6, the finale of the Firebird and of course the music of Jango in AOTC

The Rite of Spring even today is a hard piece. In my opinion

no other composer perhaps save for de Falla, had such

a command of rhythm than Stravinsky. No weak conductors

conduct the Rite, if they do they will get swallowed whole. The

last sacrificial dance is high art in conducting AND playing! It's

ironic...compare the last 7/4 section of the Firebird finale and then

listen to the sacrificial dance composed only a year later and you

will see just how ahead of his time Stravisky was! Can you

believe that people had to dance to that?

Well, I have babbled on long enough. I just wanted to add something

of substance to this forum. It is such a great place. Thanks

DHP

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Actually, my views are not from audience point of view, but from actually taking conducting class and my (limited) conducting experience. I agree with everything you said. Rehearsals are quite a pain as a conductor, mostly when your musicians don't show up!

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>>It is curious to hear the views here. I take it that they all come from audience observations (??).

Lots of people here have played in ensambles, and apparently a couple peolpe have had the privledge to conduct, myself included.

>>Other famous examples that come to mind are...the finale of the Firebird

Just for curiousity's sake, the times here (starting from "Disappeoarance of Kastchei's Palace and Magical Creations, Return of Life to the Petrified Knights, General Rejoicing") go 3/2, 7/4 (alternating each measure between 3+2+2 and 2+2+3), and finally 2/2 just a couple measures from the end. The 3/2 section starts with the wonderful flute solo and goes until tuba, trombones, and trumpets pick up the motif that then goes to the end of the piece (theis is also where there is a significant increase in tempo). 2/2 starts 8 meausures from the end, after the last statement of the motif.

EDIT: I had the score in front of me, and still goofed... the 3/2 section starts with a *horn* solo, not flute... flute comes in beat 2 of the 12th measure...

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I wouldn't take offense to that comment Darth Horn Player made.

He wasn't discrediting anybody's opinion...just saying that a lot of the perspectives seemed to be a "looking from afar" type...like which motions Williams uses and things like that.

Lol...before we go scaring everybody away...let's cut back on the Stravinsky analyzing...lol... I was INCREDIBLY bored one day and I wrote down every meter change in the last movement of The Rite of Spring...without the score...just a CD...and I got sick that day right afterwards...lol...horrible headache and stomach cramps...lol.

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Wow, I missed this thread while I was gone!

I love conducting. I'm happy to say that is one of my forte's , . . .some of you forgot to mention the importance of the conductor acknowledging the cues of entrances in music.

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Also, on an interesting note, JW, like MANY (and I emphasize many!) conductors actually conduct AHEAD of the beat. You will see, for instance, JW give a downbeat even as much as a full beat ahead of it. The primary reason for doing this is to increase the intensity of the music.

Hi. I dont know anything really about Conducting. I'm just a perverted Voyeur from afar, watching the amazing facial displays and emotion being played out by conductors. And i'm only guessing that what you refer to is something i've noticed too. I mentioned that wonderful DVD from Amazon earlier in the year, which i purchased. Showing black and white footage of many of the differing styles of different conductors. One other great DVD i have is of a performance of Mozart's Coronation Mass in the Vatican in the mid 1980's. Conducted by Herbert Von Karajan (spelling?). I always noticed that he was always one step ahead, and often thrust his hands down and jutted his jaw out a little before something took place to signify he really wanted this choral bit to go "OOOMPH"...lol. In a passage referring to Pontius Pilate and the sentencing of Jesus, Karajan's face is really in there with the emotion. Gripping stuff. Even a twist of the fist and gritting of the teeth at one point, where the great choral "Crucifi" begins. Wonderfully gripping. If anyone is wondering which bit i'm referring to, its in the CREDO section of the mass.

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"The Act of conducting" is what many recreate. The mechanical act of beating out the time signature. Easy, any monkey can do that.

A true conductor is a conduit. Chanelling the music, being in touch with the composers spirit. This is what a conductor does. His energy reaches the orchestra and controls them.

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I know someone who just shows the beat. . .it's pretty boring to watch. I hate showing the beat (seeing as odd meters kick my butt) I'm more about what it should sound like. The musicians can count for themselves :devil:

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  • 2 weeks later...
Also, on an interesting note, JW, like MANY (and I emphasize many!) conductors actually conduct AHEAD of the beat. You will see, for instance, JW give a downbeat even as much as a full beat ahead of it. The primary reason for doing this is to increase the intensity of the music.

Hi. I dont know anything really about Conducting. I'm just a perverted Voyeur from afar, watching the amazing facial displays and emotion being played out by conductors. And i'm only guessing that what you refer to is something i've noticed too. I mentioned that wonderful DVD from Amazon earlier in the year, which i purchased. Showing black and white footage of many of the differing styles of different conductors. One other great DVD i have is of a performance of Mozart's Coronation Mass in the Vatican in the mid 1980's. Conducted by Herbert Von Karajan (spelling?). I always noticed that he was always one step ahead, and often thrust his hands down and jutted his jaw out a little before something took place to signify he really wanted this choral bit to go "OOOMPH"...lol. In a passage referring to Pontius Pilate and the sentencing of Jesus, Karajan's face is really in there with the emotion. Gripping stuff. Even a twist of the fist and gritting of the teeth at one point, where the great choral "Crucifi" begins. Wonderfully gripping. If anyone is wondering which bit i'm referring to, its in the CREDO section of the mass.

Hehe, I have that DVD too. Indeed, the conductor anticipates the music. It's kind of weird but necessary. When you see it, you realize that the only way for this to work is when the orchestra keeps the tempo, the conductor indicates the inflection and the changes.

Also very visible in Karajan is that he signals the ending of the phrases. It reminds me of my piano teacher. In every difficult passages, every time I failed it was because I was not finishing the previous phrase before attacking the next one. My teacher would say at the end of the phrase, very loud, 'finish! finish!', then he would force me to wait a long pause, in silence, to make me feel the division, then attack into the next phrase with a renewed breath. In the actual performance, this division or pause is almost unperceivable, but if the musician 'sees' the pause in his mind, the passage comes out with the virtuosistic comfort and character of a great interpreter. Complete properly, to begin right. ;)

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