This is a most comprehensive subject. Books have been written and cannot cover every aspect. This discussion will just target some essentials of clear conducting.
For effective large ensemble performance, players must watch the conductor – every few measures, and at key moments. The conductor must be clear, and the players must be able to tell at a glance where in the measure they should be. Conducting should demonstrate the tempo of the piece, the style (legato, marcato, etc), and the dynamic (the softer the dynamic, the smaller the beat pattern).
Some conducting how-tos
• Use a baton. As they play, the instrumentalists need to read music. They look up at the conductor, but for brief glances. A baton gives a point of focus and clarity to the beat pattern. A hand has several potential points of focus, a baton has one. There are many options for batons – length, handle shape, materials, and more. Each conductor can find what works best for them and their players.
• Don’t count off at the beginning of a piece – give good preparatory beat. The prep beat is usually one full beat before the first notes of the piece. For a piece 4/4 meter where the music begins on beat one, the conductor gives beat 4 for the prep beat. The hands begin in position for beat 3. With attention and practice, a conductor can give a clear and accurate prep beat so that the players will know exactly where to begin with no count off needed. The moments just before the piece begins are orderly, quiet, and the players can focus together.
A proper prep-beat should clearly convey in one beat:
• The Tempo of the piece or section
• The dynamic level of the music
• The style of the music – such as lyrical or fast and energetic.
• Make sure the players can see you. Also, consistently remind players to watch you. Even the best players can keep their focus on the music stand. Watching the conductor is part of good basic musicianship. The conductor often needs to be elevated on a podium so that players in the back can see. He/She also needs to raise his/her hands high enough for them to be seen. Consider the perspective of the players when conducting.
• Cue players’ entrances after long rests. Players will be counting rests, but will play much more confidently when confirm their counting with a cue.
• Conduct from the full score whenever possible. The score gives the whole picture the conductor, which is vital to conduct all of the performers on a piece. Lyrics and other words are often quite small in full scores, so some pencil marking may be helpful.
• Conducting gestures must indicate the proper dynamics and style – you will save a lot of time in rehearsal by letting your conducting do the talking.
• Conduct the entire piece – Conduct through sustains, introductions and endings.
• Have good eye contact with the players, resist staring at the music. Players will look up much more often when they see you looking at them. Look around the group often. This also helps you listen to everything going on.
Keep rehearsal pace brisk and interesting. Don’t spend too much time in one place, or on one piece.
Use brief warm-ups at the beginning of rehearsal. An effective warm-up would reinforce the following aspects of a musical performance:
• tone – characteristic of the instrument being played
• balance – instruments and sections in correct proportions to each other in volume
• blend – listening and matching the tone and volume
• key – difficult keys from the rehearsal can be addressed first in the warm-up with a scale, chorale, or exercise.
• following the conductor
Let the players play. That is the highest motivation activity in a rehearsal. For players to improve, ultimately they are going to need to play.
• Keep talking (directions and instructions) to a minimum – except for devotions.
• Don’t stop and rehearse too often, or in irrelevant detail.
Getting things done – 3 kinds of problems
Knowing and working according to these guidelines will help get maximum results, save time, and have maximum enjoyment for players and director alike. a director will encounter three different kinds of problems in a rehearsal:
1. Fix it – There is a lack of understanding by the player(s). This is a mistake that doesn’t get better after playing it a time or two.
2. It will get better on its own – run through it again and the problem should be solved. If not, it is a problem #1. These mistakes are smaller and less frequent, e.g., the player missed a key change, or misread a rhythm at first.
3. It’s not going to get better. The part may be too difficult for the player to learn by the given deadline. Some solutions: edit the part – ahead of time, if possible, or leave it out entirely. This topic was addressed in more detail in the January 2016 blog post Playing Difficult Orchestrations.
Give directions once rather than repeating yourself in rehearsal. This trains players to listen and engage in the rehearsal process. It may seem a picky point, but this is essential to keep the rehearsal pace moving well.
When correcting a player, give specific and detailed instructions. Never assume that a player knows whether they made a mistake. Clear instructions help bring specific improvement.
Use humor – as consistent with your personality and the situation. Disarmed with humor, corrections or improvements can be more easily received.
Count measures together when starting somewhere in the middle of a piece. Try saying, “find letter B in the music. Now count with me measures before letter B. 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9. Start with me there.” This saves time and keeps everyone engaged.
Some talking and socializing in the group is okay – that’s the only time some of them see each other! An instrumental group can be like a large family. If it gets out of hand, lovingly reel them back in.
Most people use tablets and/or smart phone in daily life. Set some guidelines so that players are not distracted or distracting to others in rehearsal.
When work is done on a piece, let the group know that they are ready to play. Player confidence is important in performance.
The most important element of musical performance is a good, clear, characteristic tone. When a player uses such a tone, is is much easier for them to play with good intonation. Strive for characteristic tone on each instrument. Remind players to always play with their best tone.
Understand and teach how tone is affected by:
• Technical demands/keys
Regardless of the range, dynamic marking, or the emotion of the moment, always keep tone under control. Players must never play louder, softer, higher, or lower than they can play with a good tone.
Ideas to help improve poor tone:
• Pay attention to your sound. Listen and evaluate your own sound consistently
• Play long tones (crescendo slightly at the end)
• Play range builders and extended scales
There are of course many views on the most effective tuning procedures. The following is what I have used throughout my career:
• First, brass on “Bb” – taken from the piano if it is in tune.
• Next, woodwinds on “A”
• Then, Strings first on “A”
Other than horns or CC tubas, all of the brass can tune open or in first position. Professional orchestras tunes on “A”, but non professional brass will tune more accurately on “Bb”. Strings go last so they can take whatever time they need without having to compete with woodwinds or brass to hear themselves.
An axiom we directors like to repeat is that tuning is not an event, it is a process. As the wind instruments warm to room temperature and beyond, as the temperature in the room changes, and as players fatigue, intonation will need to be monitored and adjusted.
Players must tune themselves. While they play, have players listen. If someone hears that something is not right in regards to intonation, that player must adjust. If it gets worse, they adjusted the wrong way – go the other way.
Use tuners. They are very helpful tools. After using one, players must then rely on their ears to help them stay in tune.
• Know the pitch tendencies of each instrument and how to compensate.
• Know how range, dynamic, endurance, and temperature effects each instrument and how to compensate.
• Use alternate fingerings where needed, helpful, and possible.
Know what you want to hear – what should this sound like?. Making a group sound good is similar t the recess of sculpting an elephant from a block of stone – just chip away everything that does not look like an elephant. In rehearsal, just work to fix everything that does not sound right. When you hear a problem, determine the problem, and the best solution. Break it down into smaller groups – having a section or several sections play can make musical problems easier to find and fix.as long those lines, sectional rehearsals before or after the full ensemble is a great way to find and fix mistakes. The section can work on passages they need to address without sitting inactive while other passages are rehearsed
If the group sounds ragged, then listen for:
• Wrong notes – key signature mistakes or missing accidentals are common causes of wrong notes.
• Blend – each player needs to hear themselves, and the players around them.
if you cannot hear those around you – you are too strong
if you cannot hear yourself – you are not strong enough
Listening to each other as they play is the most effective way to improve the overall sound of a group.
• Style – everyone playing the same length of notes (staccato, legato, swing 8ths etc.).
• Rhythmic precision – everyone playing their rhythms accurately. Have similar parts play together. Demonstrating difficult rhythms by counting and/or singing them can save time and frustration.
• Sustain long notes full value unless otherwise marked or intended.
Make sure the melody is predominant. This often needs to be achieved by having accompaniment parts play softer and listen for the melody while they play.
Make sure you can hear bass and inner parts, not just the higher instruments. Make sure you can hear all parts in a section, not just the first parts.
How does it REALLY sound?
Have someone else rehearse the group from time-to-time. stand back and watch and listen to the group in action. A fresh perspective and pair of ears is healthy!. Recording a rehearsal and listening to it later, or capturing a rehearsal on video can show how your rehearsals really looks and/or sounds is not often easy to face, but this process is a great way to improve the director, the group, and the rehearsal process.
Whatever our musical background and training, no matter what other skills we possess, as directors we need to be able t stand in front of a group and solve musical problems. The process may sound negative, but we can be most encouraging and positive as we help players do what they want to do even better. Remember to thank the players for coming and working. When the music sounds good, stop and talk about it. Most directors spend far to little time talking about all of the aspects of rehearsal that go well.
My hope is that at least some of these ideas of helpful to you.