2.3 Conducting in 1

If conducting in 2 is difficult, then conducting in 1 must be even harder? Well, in a way not really: at least the players won’t get confused wondering which beat is which as they are all 1! The big challenge here is creating variety in what you do. At least with a 4/4 pattern you have four different directions to go in, so it is easier to create a sense of direction and journey. When in 1, we have to work a little harder at this.

One solution is to use space: larger and smaller beats will give a sense of rise and fall in the phrase. In the previous section we talked about active and passive beats, and of course this is a continuum: increasing and decreasing the amount of energy in the impulse also creates variety. We also have another dimension available to us: in addition to horizontal and vertical, we can move our hands forwards and backwards. Moving forwards away from our body can give a sense of going towards a destination and retreating backwards releases the energy.

What we wouldn’t recommend is beating out a four-measure phrase as a pattern of 4, or a three-measure phrase in 3, etc. If the composer had wanted 12/8 instead of 4 x 3/8, they would probably have written that. On occasions it may be helpful though. A good example is the famous 11/4 measure in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. If the conductor beats 8 downbeats and then a 3/4 pattern this is very helpful to the musicians from a practical point of view. It can even save a disaster if the conductor miscounts and makes it 10/4 or a 12/4!

A lot of music that is conducted in 1 is in triple time: waltzes in 3/4, scherzos in 3/8 and so on. When the groove is 3 inside 1, a circular beat is very helpful. The advantage of a circle is that the players can see a journey with a destination, so it is easier to predict where the next beat will be than if the conductor gives a succession of vertical downbeats. Watch this short video and note how although the circle is continuous, the speed of motion isn’t constant. There is acceleration towards the bottom of the circle and then deceleration after it. In other words, gravity plays a part. As the acceleration increases, the musicians will articulate the note on the bar line more strongly. This sense of acceleration towards the beat is crucial at all times, and particularly easy to see in this context.

Now look at the next two Workbook excerpts. The first one is in quite a quick tempo and the rhythm of the accompaniment is not so simple. Therefore, the conductor is very consistent with the beats, and whilst she shows the dynamics, not too many risks are taken. In the Shostakovich, the music is much more straightforward – the classic “oom-cha-cha” waltz accompaniment. This means the ensemble relies less on the conductor to stay together and so he can be much more flexible. You can also tell that he is thinking of the four-measure phrase, even though he doesn’t mark this in a 4/4 pattern.

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