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3/23/96: I’ve received a number of questions from non-musicians about conducting technique (use of baton, beating patterns, gestures, etc.). In light of the questions, it seemed appropriate to provide an overview.

First, remember that, while the gestures you see in a concert are important, the most important work is done in rehearsal. The gestures should be reminders of what we’ve arrived at in rehearsal with only modest adjustments during performance. Also, some of the differences you observe among conductors arise from different conceptions of the same piece of music—slower, faster, louder, softer, and so on.

As for pure technique, there are standard gestures and baton movements that relate primarily to such technical matters as upbeats, downbeats, and beat patterns. But even in these matters, there are choices: one may choose to beat each of the notes in a measure or more or fewer, for example, to help an orchestra over a difficult passage or to achieve a subtle change in mood. Most conductors prefer to use a baton, as I do, because it gives a more precise point in space and permits finer gestures when needed. Some will use their two hands in much the same way most of the time whereas I tend to use one hand for beating time and the other for messages about dynamics and expression.

While there are some standard ways of communicating expressive qualities desired, this is where conducting techniques get more individual and idiosyncratic. People are more or less graceful, expressive, energetic, demonstrative, expansive and, even, clear and precise. Some just naturally make a larger gesture or a smaller gesture for much the same intended effect.

When I prepare a piece, I don’t plan gestures explicitly as a choreographer plans a dance. My objectives are not cast in visual terms nor am I aiming for a visual effect on the audience. The gestures are simply a means of communicating the messages I’m trying to get across to the orchestra.

Thus, in the final analysis, a conducting style is a communications style. When you are young, you observe and try out different styles until you settle into your own. After a while, you don’t think much about gestures as such—until they fail you. Then you make small or large adjustments to help you communicate better with a specific group of musicians.

©1996 by Joseph Rescigno. The text here may be freely reproduced for non-commercial purposes as long as credit is given.

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