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Conducting Technique - It's Not As Easy As It Looks !

   If you've ever been to an orchestral concert and wondered what the man on the podium in front of the orchestra
is doing by waving his hands around , here is a brief explanation .  Basically , conducting is a kind of rhythmical sign language which guides the orchestra through any given work, or in the case of opera, the orchestra , the singers and chorus . 

  Music is written out in bars, or measures on the page , and at the end of every bar, there is a line called the bar line.  Each measure is divided into what we call beats, usually four or two,or three per measure, sometimes six or more.  The  conducting gestures indicate the number of beats per measure , and there are basic patterns to indicate that number .  This helps to keep the orchestra together ,and to start a piece together, as well as to end it.

   The basic beat patterns are very easy to learn , but putting them into action in any given work is often anything but easy !   For four beats per measure, the basic pattern is  the hand coming down for the first beat,
moving to the left for the second, then moving to the right for the third, and then coming up for the fourth .
   The first beat in starting a piece is called the down beat.  The last beat in every measure is called the up beat.

   In  three four time, which is what waltzes use,  the hand comes down for the first, then moves right for the second, and up for the third.  In two beats per measure, it's simply down / up .  In six beats per measure, it's a bit more complicated ;  down, two beats to the left, then two beats to the right, and up .  Sometimes there are irregular beats of five or even seven or more beats per measure, but rarely in music written before the 20th century . 

   In this case, it's a mixture of either two  plus three, or three plus four .  Down/up plus down,right up,or
  down,right,up plus down/up . 

    In order to start a work,  the conductor brings the musicians to attention by raising his  right hand ; 
    the he gives the preparatory up beat , and the musicians begin . This is necessary for the musicians to
    start together .  The musicians have to watch the conductor carefully ,unless they happen not to be playing at the very beginning, which sometimes happens.  A work does not always start with the entire orchestra playing .

   There are many variables in conducting  other than beat patterns .  When the tempo is very slow, it's
often helpful for the conductor to subdivide the beat,  actually beating eight  per measure , with a slight extra beat  for every  beat.  When the tempo is very fast,  such as the second movement of Beethoven's ninth symphony , which is in a very fast three beats per measure,  the conductor has to beat  one beat per measure, because it's physically impossible to beat  three at such as fast tempo .

   In some measure, if you look at the score,  a symbol which looks like a bird's eye appears.  This is a Fermata, which in Italian means to hold  the measure beyond one beat, possibly for a few seconds.
   When it's time to go on,  the conductor makes a cut off gesture  and continues beating . The very end 
of a piece or a movement of a symphony usually has this sign.

   Some conductors  mirror the beat pattern  with the left hand  ,but this is not really necessary .
   The left hand needs to be free to make other gestures, such as giving musicians what is called a cue, or the exact time to enter in the middle of a piece.  Usually the musicians do not need this, because they are counting measures of rest, when they don't play, but sometimes coming in at the exact time is tricky, so the conductor  needs to  make a gesture to help the player come in on a solo passage exactly in time.
   In opera, the singers often need this gesture to come in at the right time, since they don't have the music in front of them .

   One reason why the musicians need a conductor is  that this helps them speed up and slow down 
when  the music indicates, with terms such as  Ritrardando in Italian, or slowing down graduall  , or accelerando,
which means increase speed gradually .  Sometimes  the  composer indicates an immediately slower or faster tempo, and it's very difficult for the musicians to do any of these things on their own.
    It's also very difficult,if not impossible, to play certain 20th century works with constant changes of 
 the number of beats per measure, such as Stravinsky's famous ballet score The Rite of Spring , which
is fiendishly difficult rhythmically . 

   A conductor is much more than a traffic cop ;  the basic gestures are only part of this very difficult and complex job .  It's more like being the director of  a movie or a play .

Posted: Aug 03 2011, 05:38 PM by the horn | with no comments
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