The Conductor’s Code: Deciphering an Enigma!
Updated: Aug 22, 2019
For the majority of you, I suspect you don’t even notice the conductor stood in front of you flapping away! But for the few of you who like to take a break from reading your part and look up to see the maestro in action, but often think “what on earth are they doing?”, this is for you!
1) Big gestures. Big gestures are supposed to be indicative of louder dynamics – Supposed to! In reality, particularly with amateur ensembles, large gestures for me equate to “ALL EYES ON ME, GET YOUR HEAD OUT OF YOUR PART!”. Often my gestures become large when the ensemble starts to drag, or the ensemble just aren’t watching, and things are becoming ropey. Ordinarily, big gestures should be used to indicate louder dynamics.
2) Small gestures. In blunt terms, it means “shut up”! Small gestures are the industry standard for piano dynamics, but I will confess, sometimes I like to trick my ensemble. I will sometimes use smaller gestures to force them to look in more intently. I often meet blow-back on this one, with some saying “I can’t see your beat”, to which I respond “pay more attention”.
3) The upbeat.Indicates the last beat of the bar. If you’re lost, look in for this to pin point where you are in the bar. I often get push-back for this saying “I can’t see your upbeat”, to which I often don’t have a response – sometimes my upbeat isn’t big enough based on where some people sit in the room. A consideration every conductor needs to bear in mind.
4) The downbeat. Always preceded by the upbeat, and just as the upbeat is the final beat of the bar, the down beat is the first beat of the bar. Use this to assist in knowing where you are in the bar.
5) The left hand. I use this for a myriad of things. Often, I’ll use it to give entries; to give a sense of the style of music; and normally (If I remember), to indicate rehearsal marks, double bars, or key changes that we’ve reached when playing. This just helps a little bit with geography and is particularly useful when the ensemble is sight reading a piece – I try to refrain from calling out rehearsal marks and try to instill an understanding of the body language I use.
6) Smiles. “you’re doing good, keep it up!”. Not to be confused with my nervous smile, which sometimes appears when I haven’t got a clue what’s going on, or where we are in the piece. When this happens, I’m usually hoping some clued up member of the band will mouth a rehearsal mark to me, or for the ground to swallow me up. Whichever comes sooner!
7) Frowning. It’s quite likely that some questionable playing has occurred, or I’ve just remembered that I’ve forgotten to turn the oven off. Normally the latter.
8) Conducting has stopped. Stop playing, or don’t play on if it’s a pause. This one can be a mild annoyance for any conductor, particularly when rehearsing. It’s quite staggering how often people continue to play on for some bars without realizing that I’ve stopped. Very indicative of people not watching and can waste valuable rehearsal time. Everyone must be mindful of this unless you want a solo!
9) Absent conductor. The conductor is most likely stuck in traffic, has forgotten about the rehearsal, or has been run out of town by an angry mob. Or rehearsal was cancelled, and you’ve forgotten!
There’s my brief run down to the enigma of the conductor. Have this cheat sheet with you at all times, and every rehearsal or concert will go smoothly!