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Conducting for Pianists (Part 1)

September 9, 2014
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Wait, pianists should learn how to conduct?  Are you kidding?  I’m a pianist, not a choir director.  I don’t need to know how to conduct.  WRONG.  :-)  Conducting is not just for choir directors and band teachers.  But, even if that were the case (which it’s not) as a pianist you will have opportunities to do accompanying, and that often includes choirs and ensembles which usually are lead by a conductor….and that means you’ll need to know what the conductor is doing in order to follow him!  So, yep, conducting is for pianists.  If you never physically conduct anything yourself, as a pianist it is still extremely important to understand conducting so that you can be a good accompanist.

There are additional reasons why a pianist benefits from knowing how to conduct, beyond accompanying.  For example, conducting helps a pianist become a well-rounded musician, enables a pianist to step in for a conductor if he/she is late or sick (been there, done that), it increases rhythm skills, helps a musician to gain a deeper understanding of dynamics and expression, teaches skills needed for higher music education (conducting was a required course for my piano degree!), and provides a confidence boost in being a leader.

There are many facets to learning the skill of conducting, really more than I can discuss in a few blog posts, so I intend to just stick to the “basics.”   But, I will discuss enough information to provide students with a good basic foundation in conducting.  I hope you will enjoy this series.  In this post (Part 1) I will discuss the basics of conducting, common conducting patterns, and the purpose of and who uses a baton.

HOW TO HOLD THE HANDS WHEN CONDUCTING(1) Traditionally the right arm is used for conducting the beat patterns (which is repeated continuously throughout the song or piece of music), and the left arm is used for providing expression, cues, and so forth.  I have seen it done in the reverse, but it is not the standard practice.  So, it is best to teach your students to conduct the beat patterns with their right arm (even if they are left handed).

(2) Performers can’t see what you do from the waist down, though the audience can, so keep all arm movements to above the waist.  Also, keep the feet and legs still because movement there is a distraction.  The best arm and hand position is slightly above the waist and parallel to the ground, with the palm down.

(3) It is best to keep the wrist relaxed and movable, but without flopping it around.  It can be extremely confusing for those following to have any real idea of where the beats are if the wrist is flopping around (is the beat at the top of the flop or the bottom?).  It is best to have the hand in a natural hand position (slightly rounded and relaxed).  Hands held sideways, stiffly, below the waist, or up really high put confusion and strain into the situation for both conductor and followers.

(4) Always keep the shoulders down in a normal, relaxed position.  ”When [shoulders] creep up…singers in particular tense their shoulders in subconscious imitation.”1  That’s bad news for their comfort as well as the quality of sound they produce.

(5) For the last beat of any full measure the arm ALWAYS travels UP.  For the first beat of the measure the arm ALWAYS travels DOWN.  And for the second-to-last beat (the beat just before the up beat) the arm ALWAYS travels AWAY FROM THE BODY.  What happens between beat 1 and the  second-to-last beat of the measure depends on the beat pattern. (see below)

CONDUCTING PATTERNS

When choosing a beat pattern and preparing to conduct it is important to first know:
(a) how many beats are in a measure
(b) does the song or piece begin with an up-beat (also known as a pick-up or anacrusis)*  or a down beat.**
(c) what is the tempo of the song or piece

There are many different conducting patterns or movements depending on the number of beats in a measure, the tempo of the piece, whether a conductor is going to divide the beats, if there is a breath or a fermata within the musical selection, if it is staccato vs. legato, etc.  But, for the purposes of sticking to the basics, the most commonly used beat patterns are as follows:

A 2-beat measure (2/4,  2/2,  a quick 6/8,  or a fast 4/4)

 

 

 

 

 

 

A 2-beat pattern is the easiest pattern to learn.  The arm goes down for beat one and then right back up again for beat 2.  Down-up, down-up, down-up.  That’s it.

A 3-beat measure (3/4,  3/2,  or 3/8)

 

 

 

 

 

 

For a 3-beat pattern the arm goes down for beat 1, then AWAY from the body for beat 2 (because it is the second-to-last beat), and then up for beat 3.

A 4- beat measure (4/4,  4/2,  4/8,  or slow 2/4)

 

 

 

 

 

 

For a 4-beat pattern the arm goes down for beat 1, ACROSS the body for beat 2, then AWAY from the body for beat 3 (second-to-last beat), and up for beat 4.

A 6-beat measure (6/8 or 6/4)
Sometimes Pattern A can be confusing so Pattern B is an alternate option for conducting a 6-beat pattern.

PATTERN A                                                                                                                                PATTERN B

For a 6-beat pattern (option A) the arm goes down for beat 1, ACROSS the body for beats 2 and 3, then AWAY the body for beats 4 and 5 (second to last beat), and then up for beat 6.
For a 6-beat pattern (option B) you beat a large 3-beat pattern followed by a small 3-beat pattern up higher.

There are irregular beat conducting patterns as well (5-beat or 7-beat measures), but since they are not “common” or “typical” I will not discuss those at this point in time.  Suffice it to say they are similar to the 6-beat pattern but with more or less bounces on one side or the other of the downbeat.

BATONS

To use a baton, or not to use a baton, that is the question.  Well, thankfully that question has a very simple answer: it doesn’t really matter.  :-)  There are arguments on both sides of the table and a fair amount of myths as to who should or shouldn’t use a baton.  But, in reality there is no hard and fast rule one way or the other.  For whatever it’s worth, in college I was taught to conduct choral groups without a baton, but to conduct instrumental ensembles with a baton.  I would certainly say that so far as teaching piano students how to conduct and understand conducting that a baton is not needed.

 

 

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* An anacrusis, pickup, or upbeat is one or more notes which come before the first metrically strong beat (usually the first beat of the first complete measure in a piece of music).

** A down beat is the first beat of the measure (the strongest beat in any meter).

 

 

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