How do you teach beginners what your conducting means?
During my 29 years of being a band director, I have heard many directors say, “look up,” “follow me,” “watch,” and “watch the baton.” But I didn’t see them explain the conducting gestures to the students. Here are some simple “rules” of conducting and the language of semiotics (developed by H.E. Nutt) that can easily be taught to students, so they understand what to watch for. All of this is “sprinkled” among the other beginning band fundamentals and at appropriate times of the year.
So you know what I’m discussing, here is the basic information for you:
The Director’S number ONE obligation is to give concise indications of good rhythm at all times. The conducting rule.
- As long as the baton moves, the tone continues.
- When the baton stops, the tone stops.
- In making a “grand pause” stop, be sure the baton and left hand are in position to resume beating without awkwardness and without losing the feeling of good rhythm.
- To ensure a good rhythm of attack, always make TWO preparatory beats before the playing or singing begins.
- To ensure a good rhythm of release, always make TWO preparatory gestures leading rhythmically to the exact point of release.
- Never make a hold with an upward motion of the baton (never make a hold going up).
The baton motions
- Rhythm is indicated by the direction of the baton motions.
- Speed (Tempo) is indicated by the speed of the baton motions.
- Style is indicated by how the baton moves.
- Volume is indicated by the amount of space covered by the baton motions.
The Left hand
Be aware of the character of the left hand and don’t mirror the conducting all the time.
- Fist with a thumb on top…strong.
- Fingers loosely close together, palm downward, calm movements…Smooth, softer.
- Fingers loosely close together, palm and fingers facing the band and raising arm…soft.
I start with the 4/4 pattern in the beginning. I teach them where the directions go and what count is on each direction–very basic, “down, center, out, up” or “floor, wall, wall, ceiling.” I have them imitate. Once they have the idea, I have them direct to a piece of music.
The first rule is taught:
“When the baton moves, the tone sounds.”
And the correlating second rule:
“When the baton stops, the tone stops.”
One of the “games” we play is to have the students count to 4 and then I stop moving the baton to see if they are understanding the rule. I start very obviously, then I stop on different counts and have them stop counting and stop tapping the foot. It gets them understanding and we have fun with it as well. I will do this at various tempos as we advance.
When we get to 3/4 and 2/4, those are also demonstrated. As the students develop their playing skills, I will take a part of our F descending music or scales and demonstrate different time signatures, asking them to change the note on count one. This turns into an excellent exercise both to change the time signature of long tone exercises we do and helps them to understand the conducting gestures and how the counts correlate to them. Many times I haven’t told my high school varsity band what I’m going to do, I just start changing the counts per measure and they respond.
Next, we discuss the “set up rules” of the conductor and how we show the student to start. I do this shortly after learning the basic counts, and sometimes at the same time.
- When the arms go up to the ready position, everyone gets set. “Ready”
- When the arms move up, we take a breath. “Breathe”
- When we give the first click on one with our ictus, we play or start counting. “Go”
I use this to start all of the exercises they do. I refrain from endlessly counting off before they begin. This helps them to focus on what you are doing.
I also demonstrate the idea by tossing my keys up in the air and catching them. I have them breathe when my keys go up and play a note when I catch my keys, then I correlate that to the baton motions. They have a lot of fun with this one–I really think they are waiting to see if I drop the keys.
I will have the students hold the note, and then make two gestures in a circular fashion for the students to release the tone. They are saying “ready, release” silently. If you just give one circle with no feeling of rhythm, the ending is usually ambiguous. I will demonstrate what my conducting looks like when I want them to play softly, as well as strongly. We will play games and ask them to start with the baton in the manner of what volume is indicated. I use a combination of left-hand gestures and the space of the baton. If the baton motion is big and the left hand with the fist, and to complete it, my face/head is slightly down, looking strong, they are to play strong. When the motion is smaller and the left hand is raised with palm down and closer to me, my eyebrows raised, then they play softly.
Then we play “games” to demonstrate crescendos and decrescendos moving from the two extremes as mentioned before in a smooth manner as they advance.
I will demonstrate what my conducting looks like when I want them to play smooth and connected and when I want them to play separated, (once they are able to sufficiently perform the two styles). The same idea takes place where I show them what I want and they play that way. Simple ideas, simple music, nothing technically complicated.
I had an unusual experience one year. After one full rehearsal and one partial rehearsal, I took a middle school group to UIL. I didn’t usually direct this group, although I knew the music because of the sectionals I had assisted with and I would stand in front by the director and give him suggestions throughout the preparations. In one day, because of what I had done as a beginning teacher and a quick review with the band using some of the ideas above that I thought appropriate for the short time we would have, I was able to get the students to play some crescendos that they weren’t doing before by the gestures I was using.
Take the time throughout the students’ musical journey to educate them on what to watch for with your conducting. Even when they are in high school, don’t assume they know what you are “talking” about when you direct, although the more your gestures match the sound you want (the language of semiotics), the more they will understand without very much explanation.
“The REAL test of your directing ability can be measured only by your skill in communicating your ideas to an organization which you have not drilled, it is NOT a TEST of your ability when you direct a group you have drilled, and drilled, and drilled, and drilled.”
Mr. Guy McKinney is the Director of Fine Arts and Bands for Mercedes ISD. Under his direction, the Mighty Tiger Marching Band and the Wind Ensemble have earned many First Divisions and Sweepstakes Awards. Guy earned his B.M.Ed. from VanderCook College of Music in Chicago, where he was a conducting student of Dr. Richard Brittain, graduating as Salutatorian of his class. (1992). He has also earned his MM from the American Band College of Southern Oregon University (1999). He resides in Rancho Viejo with his wife, Adriana, and two children, Maddy and Vivian.
Getting Band Students to Look Up!
Conducting: The Three Fundamental Test
Teaching Band with Games – Drop Out Contests
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