Conducting - it's just waving your hands around, right????

June 19, 2020

This post was written ahead of a Sym-Phonic Waves Rehearsal in May, when some of the young musicians were given a chance to try out conducting.

Conducting - what's it all about? As we near this weekend's rehearsal, some of you will be preparing to get up in front of an orchestra for the very first time, and conduct. I'll give you some tips and pointers to help with your musical and physical preparation, but there really is nothing I can do to prepare you for the feeling of standing up in front of a room full of musicians, and somehow, through gesture, and will, cajoling and inspiring them to make music TOGETHER!


This is the point of the conductor - to unify and inspire the musicians to give a cohesive, engaging performance. The work is mostly done away from the concert platform, in rehearsals, getting everything in place - tempo, phrasing, dynamics, articulation - all the details. Then when the performance comes, the musicians have the freedom to really play - secure in the knowledge that the work has been done. 


Getting Started

The score:

You should already have found the score of eine Kleine Nachtmusik online. If not you can download it here: SCORE

Look at the score! We will only be working on the first movement.


What instruments are in the orchestra? Visualise where each instrument group is as you stand to face the imaginary orchestra.


What is the tempo marking? How fast are we going to play this? Look at the first violin line. Imagine the tempo of the music. Tap out your tempo, and find the corresponding metronome mark.

Beat pattern:

How many beats are in the bar? It says C - which suggests 4 beats in the bar. Now have a listen to a recording of the exposition. Tap through it with four beats in the bar. Now listen again, and tap through with two big beats in the bar. Hmmmmm...!!! It changes throughout doesn't it! For now we are going to keep it simple and beat 4 beats in the bar. To see the basic pattern for 2 and 4 beats which we use in conducting, check out this video  

Phrase Lengths:

Take another look at the score. Try to divide the music into phrases - just like we have talked about in rehearsals. How long is the phrase - 2 bars, 4 bars, - and 8 bar phrase of 4 + 4, or maybe a 6 bar phrase??? Mark up the score showing the starts of each phrase with a small line (like this:/) then write the number of bars in the phrase beside it!


Look at the main dynamics for each phrase. Is is loud or soft? At this stage we are going to focus on showing two basic dynamic levels - loud and soft! We do this by imagining our four pattern as a box. Big box = loud, small box = soft!


Look at the main articulation for each bar. Is it staccato or legato? At this stage we will focus on just two extremes! How can we show staccato in our four pattern? How does legato look? What if the melody is legato, and the accompaniment is detached??

Who has the tune?

Which section has the melody in any bar/phrase. Listen to a recording with the score and note down who has the melody. Then listen again (a few times) and turn to look at the melody section in your imaginary orchestra as you work through the piece.

Putting it all together!!

Take each phrase and decide how you will conduct it. Go through each bar and ask: Loud/soft, staccato/legato, who am I looking at?? Then practise each bar (four beat pattern) with these decisions. Slowly and steadily first, gradually working up to tempo. Then stick two bars together, then four, to make the phrase. Eventually, join all the phrases together to get a complete picture. Think exactly about where in space each beat is. If you don't know, the musicians don't have a chance!!


Aim to have a rock solid steady tempo. This is the starting point always, there is then the possibility of elasticity between beats. There is nothing worse than playing for a conductor who can't keep a tempo!!


Practise with the recording a few times - but not too many. The tempo might not be what you like, the phrasing may be different. There are many interpretations, so don't get stuck on one. Turn off the recording, and conduct through the piece. Singing what you are conducting - melody, phrasing, articulation, dynamics. Think about the character of the music - we have talked about the technicalities - the notes, but that is really only the start of the story!! What does this music say to you? 


It sounds like a lot of work, and guess what..... IT IS!!!! BUT, when you have done the preparation, you know the music, you really have something to say, and the musicians come with you to say it, there is no better place in the world to be than on that podium!!!


GOOD LUCK, and see you on Sunday!














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