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Conducting is the act of directing a musical performance by way of visible gestures. Orchestras, choirs, concert bands and other musical ensembles often have conductors.


[edit] Nomenclature

The principal conductor of an orchestra or opera company is sometimes known as a music director or chief conductor (as with the Berlin Philharmonic), or by the German word kapellmeister. Conductors of choirs are sometimes called choral directors or chorus masters (particularly for choirs associated with a particular orchestra), and conductors of military bands and other bands may hold the title of bandmaster. Respected senior conductors are sometimes referred to by the Italian word maestro (teacher).

[edit] History of conducting

An early form of conducting is cheironomy, the use of hand gestures to indicate melodic shape. This has been practiced at least as far back as the Middle Ages. In the Christian church, the person giving these symbols held a staff to signify his role, and it seems that as music became more rhythmically involved, the staff was moved up and down to indicate the beat, acting as an early form of baton.

In the 17th century, other devices to indicate the passing of time came into use. Rolled up sheets of paper, smaller sticks and unadorned hands are all shown in pictures from this period. The large staff remained in use at the Opera Garnier in Paris, and was responsible for the death of Jean-Baptiste Lully—he stabbed his foot with the staff while conducting, and the wound became gangrenous. He died two months later, after refusing surgery to remove the infected toe.

In instrumental music, a single performer usually acted as the conductor. This could be the principal violinist, who used his bow as a baton, or a lutenist who would move the neck of his instrument in time with the beat. It was common to conduct from the harpsichord in pieces that had a basso continuo part. In opera performances, there were sometimes two conductors - the keyboard was in charge of the singers, and the principal violinist was in charge of the orchestra.

By the early 19th century, it became the norm to have one person entirely dedicated to conducting, not performing as well. The orchestra expanded in size during this period, and the baton became more common, as it was easier to see than bare hands or rolled-up paper. Among the earliest notable conductors were Louis Spohr, Carl Maria von Weber, Louis-Antoine Jullien and Felix Mendelssohn, all of whom were also composers. Mendelssohn is known to have been the first conductor to utilize a wooden baton to keep time, an innovation still in use today.

Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner were also conductors, and they wrote two of the earliest essays dedicated to the subject. Berlioz is considered the first virtuoso conductor. Wagner was largely responsible for shaping the conductor's role as one who imposes his own view of a piece onto the performance rather than one who is simply responsible for ensuring entries are made at the right time and that there is a unified beat.

[edit] Conducting technique

Conducting is a means of communicating real-time information to performers. There are no absolute rules on how to conduct correctly, and a wide variety of different conducting styles exist. The primary responsibilities of the conductor are to set the tempo, execute clear preparations and beats, and to listen and shape the sound of the ensemble.

An understanding of the basic elements of musical expression (tempo, dynamics, articulation) and the ability to communicate them effectively to an ensemble is necessary in order to conduct. The ability to communicate nuances of phrasing and expression through gesture is also beneficial. Conducting gestures may be choreographed beforehand by the conductor while studying the score, or may be spontaneous.

A distinction is sometimes made between orchestral conducting and choral conducting. Stereotypically, orchestral conductors use a baton more often than choral conductors (though not always: this is up to the conductor's personal preference), and favor the use of beat patterns over gestural conducting, which concentrates more on musical expression and shape.

The grip of the baton is a contentious issue that varies from conductor to conductor. Despite a wide variety of styles, a number of standard conventions have developed.

[edit] Beat and tempo

The beat of the music is typically indicated with the conductor's right hand, with or without a baton. The hand traces a shape in the air in every bar (measure) depending on the time signature, indicating each beat with a change from downward to upward motion. The images show the most common beat patterns, as seen from the conductor's point of view.

The downbeat indicates the first beat of the bar, and the upbeat indicates the last beat of the bar. The instant at which the beat occurs is called the ictus (plural: ictus or ictuses), and is usually indicated by a sudden (though not necessarily large) click of the wrist or change in baton direction. In some instances, "ictus" is also used to refer to a horizontal plane in which all the ictuses are physically located, such as the top of a music stand where a baton is tapped at each ictus. The gesture leading up to the ictus is called the "preparation", and the continuous flow of steady beats is called the "takt".

If the tempo is slow or slowing, or if the time signature is compound, a conductor will sometimes indicate "subdivisions" of the beats. The conductor can do so by adding each beat with 'and', where each is a smaller movement but in the same direction of the beat that it belongs to.

Changes to the tempo are indicated by changing the speed of the beat. To carry out and to control a rallentando, a conductor may introduce beat subdivisions.

Some conductors use both hands to indicate the beat, with the left hand mirroring the right, though others view this as redundant and therefore to be avoided. This is also seen as improper practice by many. The second hand should be used for cueing the entrances of individual players or sections, and to aid the indication of dynamics, phrasing, expression, and other musical elements.

[edit] Dynamics

Dynamics are indicated in various ways. The dynamic may be communicated by the size of the conducting movements: the larger the shape, the louder the sound. Changes in dynamic may be signaled with the hand that is not being used to indicate the beat: an upward motion (usually palm-up) indicates a crescendo; a downward motion (usually palm-down) indicates a diminuendo. Changing the size of conducting movements may result in unintended tempo changes because larger movements require the beat to traverse more space in the same amount of time.

Dynamics can be fine-tuned using various gestures: showing one's palm to the performers or leaning away from them may demonstrate a decrease in volume. In order to adjust the overall balance of the various instruments or voices, these signals can be combined directed towards a particular section or performer.

[edit] Cueing

The indication of "entries", when a new instrument or section begins playing, is called "cueing". A cue must forecast with certainty the exact moment of the coming ictus, so that all the players or singers can play simultaneously. Cueing is achieved by engaging the players before their entry and executing a clear preparation, often directed towards the specific players, all while maintaining eye contact. Mere eye contact or a look in the general direction of the players may be sufficient in many instances, as when more than one section of the ensemble enters at the same time. Larger musical events may warrant the use of a larger or more emphatic cue designed to generate emotion and energy.

[edit] Other musical elements

Articulation may be indicated by the character of the ictus, ranging from short and sharp for staccato, to long and fluid for legato. Many conductors change the tension of the hands: strained muscles and rigid movements may correspond to marcato, while relaxed hands and soft movements may correspond to legato or espressivo.

Phrasing may be indicated by wide overhead arcs or by a smooth hand motion either forwards or side-to-side. A held note is often indicated by a hand held flat with palm up. The end of a note, called a "cutoff" or "release", may be indicated by a circular motion, the closing of the palm, or the pinching of finger and thumb. A release is usually preceded by a preparation and concluded with a complete stoppage of motion.

Conductors aim to maintain eye contact with the ensemble as much as possible, encouraging eye contact in return and increasing the general dialogue between players/singers and conductor. Facial expressions may also be important to demonstrate the character of the music or to encourage the players.

[edit] Further reading

  • Norman Lebrecht, The Maestro Myth: Great Conductors in Pursuit of Power, 2nd Rev&Up edition, Citadel Press 2001
  • Brock McElheran, "Conducting Technique"
  • Max Rudolf, "The Grammar Of Conducting"
  • Larry G. Curtis and David L. Kuehn, "A Guide To Successful Instrumental Conducting."

[edit] External links

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