Preparatory Gesture

A conductor gives musicians a signal before they start playing. We’ll use the term preparatory gesture for this. In English it is often called an upbeat, but depending on which beat of the bar the music starts the preparatory gesture might not go up! As the course progresses you will learn how the preparatory gesture can convey vast amounts of information about how the musicians should play, but for now we’ll start with showing them when to play. 

Activity 1 – Preparatory Gesture

(allow 1 -2 minutes for this activity)

Think about your experience as a player or singer working with a conductor. At what point do you know exactly when you should make a sound?

Your answers to this question will differ depending on your instrument or if you are a singer. You might for example perceive a point at which to breathe, raise and/or lower a bow, mallet, drumstick or move your hands. These actions all take different lengths of preparation time, so your perceptions will be slightly different.

Most of us learn how to do this at such an early stage in our musical development that we find this a difficult question to answer. In some ways it’s very obvious, but let’s break it down into the basics. 

An impulse is given by the conductor, from which our brains compute when, and at what speed, we should play. The crucial things here are:

a. the gesture needs to contain an active impulse, usually well before the sound is intended to appear

b. the gesture should start and finish in the same place

c. the gesture should accelerate towards the point at which the sound is intended to appear

A good way of thinking of this is bouncing a tennis ball on the ground. Of course we can bounce the ball with varying energy, and in this way we are already starting to think about the volume and articulation the musicians should play with.

Activity 2 -Preparatory Gesture 2

(allow around 5 minutes for this activity, or until it feels natural)

Watch this video in which a conductor demonstrates a preparatory beat. Then practise doing it yourself. You may want to stand in front of a mirror to check that your actions are correct.

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