ASSESSING AND IMPROVING YOUR CONDUCTING TECHNIQUE
Conducting an ensemble comes with great responsibilities. Prior to rehearsal we must select appropriate repertoire and develop an informed interpretation of the score through our own knowledge of style and performance practice. We need to research the historical context of the music. We must spend time analyzing the structure and musical terminology in the score, and must complete a thorough melodic and harmonic analysis so we can easily detect errors in rehearsal.
During rehearsal we have many other responsibilities. We must keep the rehearsal interesting and efficient through our pacing. When we detect errors and wish to improve the level of our orchestra’s performance, we must find creative ways to solve problems while keeping the atmosphere positive and engaging.
With all of these responsibilities, it is easy for us to overlook the impact that our conducting gestures have on our students’ music making. The physical gestures of conducting are very important for providing musical leadership in orchestras at all levels of development. A clear beat pattern can result in better ensemble precision. Consistency in showing cues and releases can boost players’ confidence in the conductor. Making frequent eye contact with members of the ensemble results in the ensemble watching the conductor more closely.
The physical act of conducting is much like the physical aspect of playing an instrument—over time, bad habits can develop, especially when we are so focused on helping our students. Most of us do not regularly have a professional colleague in the rehearsal with us who can critique our conducting and give us feedback. We may be able to attend professional development conducting workshops in the summer, but during the school year an effective way to improve our conducting and remove bad habits is to video record ourselves conducting in rehearsal or concert and assess our own technique. This article describes various physical components of conducting that can be improved through the use of video self-assessment, and provides questions and techniques that can used for self-reflection while studying video recordings.
Video recording technology has come a long way in the past decade. Using currently available technology, it is easy to video record yourself conducting, connect the videorecording device to your PC or Mac computer, and upload the video to your computer’s hard drive. Commonly used free or inexpensive software applications include iMovie (Mac), Adobe Premiere Elements (PC or Mac), Windows Movie Maker (PC), Sony’s Vegas Movie Studio (PC), or Pinnacle Studio (PC). Final Cut Pro is also very user-friendly. There are plentiful resources available on the web for comparing and contrasting video software, and for determining what products will work with your computer and operating system.
Once the video is imported, you can quickly access the part of rehearsal you want to examine. You can use the computer keyboard to watch in slow motion or frame-by-frame, which I have found to be extremely useful for assessing conducting gestures.
POSTURE AND PODIUM PRESENCE
One of the easiest things to assess by watching your conducting on video is your overall posture and podium presence. Here are some questions to ask while you watch yourself conduct:
Is my posture lengthened and balanced, or am I slouching? Are my shoulders level? When mirroring with my left hand, is it on the same plane as my right hand?
Is my face looking out toward the ensemble or is my head angled down toward the score while I am conducting?
If conductors are visually connected to the musicians in their ensemble, the musicians watch the conductor more closely. Assess the amount of eye contact you are making with the ensemble as you conduct. Think of yourself as a driver and the score as a road map. We may need to occasionally glance at the road map, but staring at it while driving could have disastrous consequences!
CLARITY OF PREP BEAT
Listen very carefully to your orchestra’s sound on the video to determine the precision of the ensemble. If there is a lack of clarity on the initial entrance, study your gestures and facial expressions carefully. Very often poor entrances are caused by a lack of conductor eye contact through the prep and downbeat or poor clarity at the beginning of the preparatory beat.
To assess the clarity of the prep and downbeat at the beginning of the piece, watch your video frame by frame or watch in very slow motion. Ask yourself these questions while you watch your video:
Do I maintain eye contact with the ensemble through the prep and downbeat or am I staring down at the score? Does the motion of my left hand contribute to the clarity of the prep and downbeat, or does it distract?
Imprecise mirroring with the left hand may obscure the clarity of the downbeat. One solution is to use only the baton for the initial prep and downbeat. Leave the left hand by your side until you need it for a cue or expressive gesture.
If your group is having precision problems on entrances, watch the video to determine if you are breathing in with the prep beat and exhaling on the downbeat. Synchronizing your breath with your prep and downbeat will greatly help the musicians synchronize their entrances.
CLARITY OF BEAT PATTERN
A common conducting problem that causes poor ensemble precision is a lack of clarity in the conducting beat pattern. As you watch your video, ask yourself these questions: Are my beats placed on a horizontal plane located above waist level? Do the beats in my pattern have a clear ictus?
Pausing your video and moving forward/backward frame-by-frame or in slow motion can be extremely useful for determining the clarity of ictus in the baton.
Clarity on the inner beats is very important and sometimes overlooked. A common problem is rotating the right hand wrist so the palm is no longer towards the floor. If the palm rotates towards the wall, it will often result in a lack of ictus and predictable placement of the 2nd and 3rd beats (when conducting in a 4 pattern) or problems on beat 2 in a three pattern. Since beats 2 and 3 are off the plane of beating, musicians who are trying to enter on those beats (or just trying to diligently play with the conductor) will have widely varying opinions about exactly where the beat is. The result is a sloppy sounding ensemble. See Labuta, 2010 p. 22, or Green and Gibson 2004, p. 10 and 11, in suggested readings for more info on beat clarity.
THE LEFT HAND
The left hand can be a great help but also a great distraction. Using the left hand to mirror the right hand is sometimes effective, but there are often more expressive possibilities for the left hand. Watch your left hand on the video and ask yourself how you could use it more effectively to communicate dynamics, articulations, releases, and cues.
CUES, FERMATAS, TEMPO CHANGES AND RELEASES
Watch your video for cues. Ask yourself these questions: Am I delivering enough cues to the players in my ensemble? Are my cues being delivered a beat before the entrance is to occur? Do my cues have eye contact? Does my posture remain lengthened and balanced through the cue?
Fermatas and tempo changes are always challenging to conduct, and precisely where the ensemble needs you the most. Watch the video and ask yourself these questions: Did I lead my ensemble through the fermatas and tempo changes with clarity? Did I maintain continuous eye contact with the ensemble through fermatas and tempo changes?
Showing releases can greatly improve the sonic precision of an orchestra. Watch the video to determine if you are showing clear releases at the end of long sustained notes.
Through the use of video self-assessment, we can continue to develop and grow as conductors. A refined conducting technique will help facilitate great music making with your students. Here are a few books on conducting technique I have found very useful and suggest for further reading:
Bailey, W. (2009). Conducting : the art of communication. New York, Oxford University Press.
Green, E. A. H., M. Gibson, et al. (2004). The modern conductor : a college text on conducting based on the technical principles of Nicolai Malko as set forth in his The conductor and his baton. Upper Saddle River, N.J., Pearson Prentice Hall.
Labuta, J. A. (2010). Basic conducting techniques. Upper Saddle River, NJ, Prentice Hall.
Rudolf, M. and M. Stern (1994). The grammar of conducting : a comprehensive guide to baton technique and interpretation. New York, Toronto, Schirmer Books.