For young directors, the vast responsibilities related to instrumental teaching leave little time to continue development of conducting technique. However, this skill set is invaluable in teaching effective habits to our students.
As veteran teachers know, conducting skill increases through frequent interaction with a live ensemble, and an observant teacher becomes aware that the resulting ensemble sound, individually and collectively, is closely linked to what the students perceive from the podium. If an ensemble plays dynamically narrow, manages tempo poorly, lacks energy, or produces fragile or harsh articulations, are these improper habits being reinforced by improper conducting technique?
In working with collegiate students and young teachers over the years, I have found that the ability to realize the relationship between gesture and resulting sound is perhaps the most challenging aspect of the process, and teachers often enter the profession with limited experience in what will be one of their most important skill sets.
A resilient teacher will realize this relationship and seek to improve their skill, making connections between conducting technique and pedagogical concepts. At any level, refined conducting technique can reinforce proper instrumental pedagogy in the classroom, and we often need to reconsider how our conducting relates to what we expect from our students.
Consideration 1: Revisiting the Physical Framework
Posture counts! Often, lack of preparation draws our posture toward the music stand, which can be a magnet for the head and torso. A more complete knowledge of the music at hand, whether it’s a method book etude or passage from an advanced band composition, will allow for an upright posture. This makes your gestures and facial expressions viewable by all ensemble members and helps you more clearly communicate your ideas and musical concepts. Through a proper posture, gestures result from a framework that is more conducive to pedagogical intent.
Does our movement catch students by surprise, or can they react to it and produce the expected result using proper fundamentals? The timing of our gestures in space relates to our students’ development of stable rhythm and articulation. Each time we stop or start the ensemble, our patterns, cues, and baton motion should display even movement in time upon which students can react musically with ease.
Returning to basic conducting class, consider the initiation of the preparatory gesture. Does one size fit all? Or, has the conductor developed a physical vocabulary that reinforces pedagogical concepts of breathing, tone, and style that matches verbal instructions? The movement of the baton or the left hand should help illuminate the skill required by the student who views it.
Our large joints can inadvertently place our smallest joints out of time if not coordinated carefully. While conducting, our smallest joints (fingers and wrist) should move first. Larger joints (elbow, shoulder, waist) should move last as needed. Often, we overuse large joints in response to weaknesses in our ensemble.
Can students predict where the gesture or baton motion will be complete, or are they constantly confused by gestures that are out of time? Overuse of large joints, particularly the shoulder, potentially results in long-term injury to the conductor and reinforces similarly harmful concepts in the development of our students’ embouchures and rhythmic skill. A stressed posture and erratic motion create similar tension in our ensembles.
Strive for a relaxed and upright posture that allows the joints to move freely in space, better representing proper concepts of instrumental pedagogy. While the conductor does not make a sound, posture and gesture can help or hinder musicians.
Consideration 2: Not All Beats Are Equal
Our early training reinforces the ability to conduct in simple meter and display every macrobeat. The conductor, even at the middle school level, bears the responsibility of highlighting important musical ideas, providing a visual map that reinforces both notation and musical thought. Even in simple meter, we should conduct in a manner that visually reinforces notation. Show activity when musical intention is desired, and reduce activity during periods of rest. Be prepared to conduct each part, showing the notation and direction of musical line for each player.
How often can we recall a student playing in a rest when the conductor gave a convincing preparatory beat for a moment in which no sound is required? Is it necessary to conduct four equal macrobeats in a whole note? In common time, can you show the notation for a quarter-half note-quarter rhythm without beat three?
We can reinforce proper rhythmic reading through active or passive gestures. Refine the skills necessary to conduct sound and silence to allow the players to accurately interpret their parts.
Consideration 3: Motion Between the Beats
As young conductors, we are trained to manage placement of the beat with the framework of the meter. We are trained to place beats equally, yet we often lack advanced training in showing how sound develops after the baton leaves the ictus. What is the shape of the sound past the articulation and how can one use space to better elicit the desired sound after the start of the beat?
The ensemble sound, either in beginning band class or collegiate wind ensemble, is drawn through the space between the ictuses. Baton movement or left hand gestures should accurately model how the bow or air stream should move. Tone quality, dynamic intensity, and phrasing direction can all be shown in the motion between beats in the given meter. As well, length of note and articulation are easily represented in connected or disconnected motions of the baton.
Often, I ask young groups to, ‘play through the note heads rather than at them.’ The flow of the airstream or bow through the note can be easily represented with the baton in space forward of the body.
Conducting skill is an extension of one’s own musicianship and, when refined, can be beneficial to skill development in students at all levels. Understandably, there are many approaches to teaching instrumental music in the band and orchestra classroom, and a baton is not a necessity in early training.
However, at a point in later years, our most common means of instrumental music education is found in the traditional model of band and orchestra ensembles where students become increasingly more responsible for their own musical decisions playing independent parts. The conductor becomes a guide to this process, and refined conducting skill becomes the means to teach pedagogical and musical concepts. As students develop independence, conducting vocabulary that reinforces proper instrumental pedagogy can be a time saving asset to a young director.
Record yourself on video and take the time to analyze what you see versus what you hear. Seek feedback through colleagues, and attend one of the many available summer conducting workshops. Continue to improve your skill knowing that the result will be beneficial to your ensemble and the enjoyment of the music making process.
Dr. Barry Kraus is the Director of Bands at Belmont University in Nashville, TN where he conducts the Wind Ensemble and Concert Band and teaches courses in conducting and music education. He taught instrumental music in Oklahoma, Texas, and Arizona and held previous faculty positions at the University of Texas at Austin and Baylor University. A frequent clinician and adjudicator, he has served on the executive board of the Middle Tennessee Band and Orchestra Directors Association and the Tennessee Music Educators Association.