Making Musical Decisions, Part 2: Conducting Gestures

Making Musical Decisions, Part 2: Conducting Gestures

The vocabulary of non-verbal communication skills at our disposal on the podium is a gold mine waiting to be discovered. The gestures we use in our teaching/conducting create another layer of meaning and understanding for our students. If you have noticed, thought about, and made decisions about the music, you will have things to say and gestures to use. The combination of physical gesture, facial expression and emotion working together in our teaching is powerful. Most importantly it helps a create personal connection with the music and your students.

Simply put, gesture comes from our daily interaction with people!

Focus on Everyday Gestures

Over the course of a week, focus on how you use gesture in an everyday context. Oftentimes, we move our hands and body while talking or use gestures to reinforce meaning – we should tap into what we already do naturally and not make conducting some foreign physical project.

For example, when you are with a spouse, partner, or friend, observe how their body language is affected by the words or emotions they are conveying. Genuine words and emotions will elicit genuine gestures. Meaning, if someone is very much worried or angry or in love with you, their body language will reinforce those meanings.

THIS is why score study, discussed in our first post,  is so important! We must do the study so that we can have genuine thoughts and ideas about the music. Once equipped with this information,  then the gestures can flow from us.

In Rehearsal

First of all, for maximum effect, record your rehearsals so you can have evidence of what you are doing or not doing.

Try this: Choose a section of music and assign three words to describe the music. Be as specific and vivid with your language as possible. Say these words out loud, on every beat or the downbeat of each measure, while you are conducting. (The ensemble does not have to hear it, but it needs to be audible to yourself.) If these words are truly how you feel about the music, you will be amazed at how reflective and active your face will be. Plus, more often than not, your hands and gestures will follow suit. When you focus on the affect of the music, these emotions come through in your body language.

Tips for Developing Gesture

Think about the sound, or shape of the sound you want. “This note sounds like…” Now, consider how you could communicate that sound nonverbally.


  1. Use of space – vertical and horizontal. What sounds work better with a lower/higher conducting plane?
  2. Use of Left or Right hand only – try to avoid double handed gestures
  3. Use of your “hinges” – fingers, wrist, elbow, shoulder. In general, louder/larger music calls for use of our bigger hinges.

Can you gesture that same sound in two or three different ways? Practice in front of a mirror while singing the music. This process will give you more “tools in your toolbox” that you can bring with you to the podium.


Teaching the music through gesture is an important part of our process. Your students will watch you if you have something to say. Remember, gestures are the RESULT of musical conviction. Utilizing gesture more effectively in your rehearsal can take time to develop. Setting small goals, developing one or two skills at a time will allow for more immediate success. If you can, videotape your rehearsal. It is the best tool for self-assessment!

Matthew Dockendorf is assistant director of bands and instructor of music at the University of Colorado Boulder. He conducts the campus and concert band, assists with the “Golden Buffalo” marching band, directs the men’s and women’s basketball band and teaches courses in music education. Matthew previously studied at Michigan State University where he wrote drill and arranged music for the Spartan Marching Band and Spartan Brass. He also served as conductor of the Campus Band and guest conducted the Wind Symphony, Symphony Band, Concert Band and Musique 21. Matthew holds a D.M.A. in conducting from Michigan State University, an M.Mus. in conducting from The Ohio State University a B.M.Ed. from the University of Minnesota.
David Thornton joined the faculty of Michigan State University's College of Music in the fall of 2015 as assistant director of bands. Dr. Thornton conducts the University Concert Band and Spartan Youth Wind Symphony, coordinates the Spartan Brass athletic band, and is the associate director of the Spartan Marching Band. In addition to his conducting responsibilities, he also teaches courses in instrumental conducting and marching band methods. Prior to coming to MSU, Thornton taught in the state of Florida where he was the assistant director of bands at Eau Gallie High School (Melbourne) and most recently the director of bands at Leon High School (Tallahassee).

David earned his doctoral and master’s degrees in Wind Conducting from Michigan State University and his bachelor’s degrees in Clarinet Performance and Music Education from Florida State University.

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