3.2 Fermatas

Fermatas or pauses is an area that we can get ourselves into big trouble with. Many promising performances come unstuck when the music comes to a stop and needs to start up again. In this section we’ll give you a process which should give you a solution for almost all situations.

Basic rules:

  • Divide the responsibility for stopping and starting the music between your two hands: stop with the left hand and restart with the right hand.
  • Make sure the fermata is at least as long as the notated note value, plus a bit more. If it’s shorter than expected it could cause chaos.
  • When re-starting after a fermata, it is exactly like starting at the beginning: the conductor gives a preparatory gesture on the beat before the music re-starts.
  • If the note with the fermata lasts for more than one beat, for example a half note, indicate only the first beat of that note, pause for as long as appropriate, do the cut-off, and give the preparatory beat for the re-start.
  • If the note with the fermata lasts for only one beat, you have to indicate that beat, pause, do the cut-off and then repeat the same beat again. So in 4/4 time, if the fermata is on beat 2, it is necessary to repeat beat 2 in order for the music to re-start on beat 3.

Here are three versions of a Bach chorale to demonstrate all of this. The first two are musically a little clunky so please forgive our crimes against Bach in an attempt to help your technique to develop! If you master these three different approaches you should have the tools to handle most fermatas without causing the ensemble too much stress.

Version 1 – JS Bach – Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott: We’ll call this the “full stop method”

  • The tempo is fairly slow, so one preparatory beat is sufficient – beat 3 of 4/4
  • The first fermata is on a half note. The conductor indicates beat one, pauses, and then cuts off the sound with his left hand. Note that the right hand does nothing.
  • After the cut-off he gives beat 2 of 4/4 and the music re-starts on beat 3.
  • Because the cut-off is done before the next preparatory beat, there is a clear gap in the music – like a full stop and the end of a sentence.
  • The rest of the fermatas are on quarter notes so, for example, the conductor gives the third beat of bar 3, cuts with left hand, and then gives another third beat and the music re-starts on beat 4.

Version 2 – JS Bach – Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott: This is the “comma method”

  • All is the same as Version 1, except that the cut-off and the preparatory beat to re-start are done simultaneously. This gives a shorter gap in the music – like a comma in a sentence.
  • This is why using one hand to stop the sound and the other to re-start is important. If you try to do everything with both hands there will be chaos (again).

Version 3 – JS Bach – Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott: This is the “no cut-off method”

  • Here there is no cut-off at all. The conductor just waits on the fermata and then continues with the next preparatory beat. You’ll see he keeps his left hand out of the way in order to make this clear.
  • This puts more responsibility on the players to co-ordinate themselves, especially if they need to breathe. Remember that making their job a little more difficult can sometimes give a better end result
  • This method is also the most appropriate if you want the fermatas to be short – as in a Bach chorale for instance
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