Let’s talk about being a better conductor when you are primarily a teacher—or “The Art of Conducting for the High School and/or Junior High School Band Director.”
If we want other people to take us, our ensembles, and our music more seriously, we must focus our attention on becoming better conductors and on presenting ourselves and our ensembles in a more professional manner.
You CONDUCT music! You DIRECT traffic!
CONDUCTING is an exciting form of non-verbal communication. Whether you are a fine conductor, or an inexperienced one, you are sending out signals. You are communicating. The big question is what signals are you sending out, and what are you communicating?
We all have enormous potential for better and more positive non-verbal communication through the art of conducting if we will just develop those skills and become better conductors. The bright young conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic, Semyon Bychkov, stated in an interview that was reported in the July, 1987 issue of Connoisseur magazine: “Conducting is a visual art. It is not enough to get an orchestra to play together. It is not enough to be ‘a great musician.’ A conductor’s means of expression must be as rich to look at as the music sounds.
“Conducting,” he continues, “is the youngest of the performing professions, born only in the late nineteenth century. It is the least understood, the least thought about. And there is a great misconception that it cannot be taught or learned.”
Through the baton (or at least the artistic and proper use of the baton) we can determine not only tempo (conduct faster or slower) (without using verbal encouragement or hand clapping?), but also style and volume. The “tip” can illustrate style–is it detached or connected? And the size of the beat will determine volume. Also, the size and location of the beat (high or low) can reinforce the concepts of both dynamics and style.
All beats are not created equal! They do not need to all be the same size, in the same place, or the same style. In fact, if we are going to be musical conductors, they cannot be the same size, in the same place, and in the same style. Continuing this line of thought, neither should all measures in a selection, phrase, or line be necessarily conducted in the same pattern or frame–even if they are in the same signature and the same tempo. Example: Last line, Suite in Eb, Mvmt 1.
The left hand (when used) frequently seems to be primarily used to “mirror image” the right hand, throw an occasional cue, and turn pages. We, generally, have not begun to exploit the usefulness or effectiveness of the left hand. Try to make it something better than a mirror image. That (the mirror image) in itself is redundant. If you are giving a set of signals with the right hand, why give the same set of signals with the left, when you can be adding an entire new group of signals or musical encouragement.
The left hand can:
1. Help develop a line or phrase by lifting as the line grows, and lowering as it diminishes. Example: first line, First Suite in Eb, first movement.
2. Add to the preciseness or effectiveness of entrances or releases.
3. Call for more sound or less sound.
4. Enhance accents, rhythmic emphasis, mood, and style.
5. Compliment or reinforce the right hand–for especially big moments; but, if it mirrors the right hand constantly, it loose its effectiveness.
Zuohuang Chen (the conductor of the Bejing (China) Symphony, formerly conductor of the University of Kansas Symphony, taught: With the baton (right hand) conduct or focus attention on what is the most difficult and technically or rhythmically–maybe the back of the 2nd violins, or the 3rd clarinets, etc. With the left hand, conduct the melody, or the more obvious line. Example: First Suite in Eb, first movement (second line of example).
We have talked about the right hand, and we’ve talked about the left hand, and we have omitted the most obvious part of all. That is your entire body!
Ideally, today’s skilled conductors conduct not with just their arms, but indeed, with their entire being.
How do you stand? Think about how your weight is balanced–forward or backward. Do you stand heavy; or do you stand light; or do you stand big; or do you stand small? You can “be” the music to a certain extent. Become aware of your sternum (and your chest and shoulders), and your carriage and you head. Become aware of your facial features and facial expressions.
It is possible to conduct without even using your hands. As professional teachers we have become too reliant on our hands and voices, to the exclusion, too frequently, of our other resources. Try putting your hands in your pockets or behind your back, and conduct an entire work using your other resources. It is a great exercise. (And it will certainly get your band’s attention!) Example: First movement: Holst Suite in Eb. Start the Chaconne.
To do any of these things well, you must first know the score. You must study the piece and prepare yourself before you begin to waste students’ time foolishly because of your own lack of preparation. Know what you want to accomplish before you start the rehearsal or the piece.
You must also rehearse conducting! Yes, I mean practice. Alone and without a group. You did not learn to be a good performer on your instrument without practicing, and you will not become a good conductor without practicing conducting.
Conducting and beating time are not synonymous. You have to know your beat patterns before beginning. Also, you have to know how to start and stop; but conducting is so much more than that!
The more communicative you become through conducting, the more efficient you will become as a teacher, (You simply do not have to stop and talk so much) and the more musical your groups will become. The more musical your groups become, the more satisfying the entire experience will be for you and for your students.
After you have prepared your ensemble (or as you prepare your ensemble) be sure to prepare yourself. Think about how you will present this product called music.