5.4 Accents and Other Articulations

A lot of conducting teaching tends to focus on rhythm, dynamics and phrasing. Articulation is something that is sometimes neglected, perhaps because it is closely connected to dynamics. It is also to a certain extent intuitive. Right at the beginning of Technique chapter 1, we introduced the basic difference between a legato and staccato beat. Through the material since then, a lot of different articulations have also presented themselves in a musical context.

A good way to think of gestures for other types of articulation is to consider them in relation to staccato and legato: a legato gesture with a slight stop between each beat could suggest tenuto;  a slightly more pronounced stop could be marcato; a continually moving legato beat with a sudden precise impulse could be used for a slight accent or a light fortepiano gesture. 

Analogies with everyday non-musical gestures are also helpful. A sharp, crisp attack can be achieved with a gesture akin to burning your finger on a hot surface. A heavy, sostenuto can be practised by holding a piano stool and trying to conduct with it. 

There is a strong connection between matters of articulation and sound and what string players do with their bows. If you are struggling to find the right gesture to communicate a particular articulation, investigating what it looks like with the bow can be helpful. On a very basic level, if you want the musicians (not just string players) to play longer, mimicking full length bow strokes will usually do the trick. Understanding that to play louder and more sustained on a string instrument requires a slower bow speed and more pressure will inform your choice of gesture. This notion is transferable to the use of breath in wind and brass playing as well: the air has to be controlled to make sure it doesn’t run out too soon in the same way as the bow does. 

If we talk about how to show an accent, the obvious answer is to do more. This can be achieved in a number of ways: 

  • more energy in the gesture
  • a larger gesture
  • using both hands
  • doing less before the accent (this is a useful and much under-used tactic)

There is also the question of when to give the information. Should it be before, or could it also be on the beat where the accent takes place?

In Accents & Augurs the brittle, ritualistic nature of this Stravinskian music requires very sharp and dramatic gestures. The tempo is quite moderate, so in the case of the accents that fall on the beat it is perfectly possible to communicate the information “on the way” to the beat. The offbeat accents are indicated with a very dry gesture with no rebound on the beat that they appear after.

In the Sibelius excerpt, at this quicker tempo the accents should be indicated on the previous beat. The players would not be able to react quickly enough otherwise, and so they would be playing the accents only because they were notated in the music. You could practise this excerpt with random accents. If the information comes too late you are unlikely to get a unanimous response.

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