5.1 Subdividing

When the tempo becomes very slow it is very difficult to beat effectively. As a general guide, if the pulse is less than 40 beats per minute (each beat lasting for 1.5 seconds), it will usually be necessary to give additional information. Sometimes this can be achieved by changing the pattern, for example a slow alla breve could become a 4/4 pattern. However, often the solution will be to indicate the subdivisions of a larger beat pattern.

This is a complex topic and one with many potential solutions. As always, while we offer an approach that we believe will be effective for the majority of conductors, it is not the only solution.

To quote the great Estonian conductor Neeme Järvi, “All music, if possible, should be alla breve.” His goal was always to avoid subdividing unless it was absolutely necessary, based on the premise that there is something inherently unmusical about indicating subdivisions. On the face of it, that’s a good thing to keep in mind as you work through what follows. It’s also a slight over-simplification (as Neeme’s own virtuoso technique proves) but we will return to this later in this section.

Another quote, this time from the legendary Finnish conducting pedagogue Jorma Panula, “Orchestra must know where is 1.” The more beats there are in a measure, the greater the chance of the musicians getting lost. Therefore, the more a subdivided pattern resembles one of the immediately recognisable patterns of 2, 3 and 4, the clearer it will be to the musicians. As such, the subdivisions in most cases should be smaller and less exaggerated than what we might call the “big beats”. 

Watch this video carefully and you will see various examples of subdivisions in 4/4, 3/4 and 12/8.

Notice how the overarching patterns of 4 and 3 remain clear. The subdivisions (whether just one additional indication or two) are small in size; they are executed with a focussed movement of the wrist; and they take place mainly in the same place as the big beat.

It is possible to give the subdivisions with more impulse and energy in order to give the subdivided beats equal or greater emphasis than the big beats. Equally, the subdivision can be done so subtly, almost non-existent. An extremely effective way of hinting at a subdivision is to momentarily stop moving on arrival at the big beat, and start moving on the subdivision: the subdivision is indicated simply by the stopping and starting of motion, not an active impulse. This technique will be sufficient much more often than you might think, so it’s a good one to try first. 

Very often it will not be necessary to subdivide all beats in a measure, so it is important to develop the ability to seamlessly move in and out of a subdivided beat. Watch the video again and focus on the last part where you will see the conductor subdividing some beats but not all. Practise this in a variety of patterns and dynamics. 

The Rossini videos contain two versions of the excerpt. In the first one, the conductor subdivides all of the beats. In version 2, he loses the subdivision in some places where a more musical result can be achieved by beating quarter notes.

Debussy’s masterpiece may very well be the most commonly set piece for conducting auditions and competitions – with good reason. Controlling the complex but flexible rhythmic interplay of quite a large orchestra, whilst also communicating the languid sensuality of the music is a big ask for even very experienced conductors. However, the sooner you start attempting to master its challenges, the sooner it will start to feel like you might be able to one day!

Notice how in the beginning the conductor doesn’t beat the first 3 measures. The solo flutist probably played this excerpt in the audition when they won the job, and as nobody else plays there probably won’t be any ensemble issues! Glide in at the start of measure 4 so that a clear preparation can be given for those who enter on the second big beat. Measure 6 should be in tempo, but that doesn’t mean that 6 eighth note beats need to be indicated. Towards the end, lose the subdivision and drop into a 3 pattern.

The beginning of Dvorak’s New World Symphony poses a lot of questions and (as we will explore in more detail further on in this chapter) requires the conductor to make certain choices. The time signature of 4/8 suggests an eighth note pulse, but Dvorak’s metronome mark is sixteenth note = 126. Possibly he was thinking in 8, but on the other hand an eighth note speed of 63 is certainly not impractical. 

A quick survey of YouTube will show you some conductors beating it all in 8: safe, but maybe lacking the nostalgic, whimsical atmosphere of the opening. Others will be in 4: delegates a lot of responsibility to the musicians, makes getting a real pianissimo and a tempo that’s not too slow tricky, and in the concert can leave you standing there wondering if the celli will ever play the second note (they play the melody in the original which is written into part 2 of our arrangement).

Our video example has a combination of both. In measure 1 the subdivision helps to get it started, especially if one is thinking of the strings beginning with upbow. The second half of the bar doesn’t require subdivision. Measures 2 and 3 are the same so the same strategy is adopted. Measures 4 and 5 are just the horns so eighth notes are fine. From measure 6, the accompaniment is different from the beginning: because they move on the second beat, the subdivision isn’t needed. At the end of measure 9, the low strings need an incredibly strong impulse to ignite their dotted figure – they don’t really need a subdivision. The syncopated rhythms of measure 15 & 17 do benefit from subdivision: even if you make the bass line quite clear, in the full orchestra version it is hard for the high woodwinds to hear the double basses. Beating measure 16 & 18 in 4 also adds to the restless, forward-moving feel of those measures. The measure before the Allegro molto just needs a downbeat, which allows space for two preparatory beats in the new tempo.

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