6.1 Developing control between the beats

In the previous chapter we touched briefly on how conductors with highly sophisticated techniques are able to control incredibly slow tempi, without resorting to subdivision, doing so by controlling what happens between the beats.

To understand this, it is necessary to explain that there are two fundamental approaches to basic conducting patterns. One is that all of the beats take place in the same place – this is sometimes referred to as ‘focal point’ conducting. In order for this to work in a legato style, it requires the gesture to move away in order for it to return to the same place for the next beat. 

The other way, most commonly found in conducting textbooks, is for the beat to always travel somewhere else. Therefore in a 4-pattern the ictus of beat 2 takes place to the conductor’s left, beat 3 to the right, and beat 4 back in the centre. While this may be an oversimplification as there are many variants (and people can get terribly uptight about this!), it serves to make the point. It’s not an easy thing to explain in writing, so here’s a comparison.

So which to choose? When the tempo is quick it probably doesn’t make much difference and if the movements to the left and right are too pronounced the effect can look very unnatural. However, in slow, expressive music with a flexible tempo the second approach should allow greater control and reduce the need to subdivide.

Watch this video in which the conductor is constantly changing tempo, and the musicians have to clap along. Which one is clearer? Try this yourself with the sound muted and see which one you prefer.

We suggest that the second version, where beats 2 and 3 take place “outside”, enables the musicians to pick up the change of tempo earlier. Because there is a journey from one place to another, the increase or decrease in velocity is much more noticeable than if the beat has to rebound away from the ictus in order to return to the same place. 

With this technique, after the ictus of the downbeat, the next movement is to the left in 4/4 or the right in 3/4 and does NOT rebound upwards. This can take some getting used to and may need to be practiced in front of the mirror or a camera.

It’s important to note that the horizontal movements must not be completely flat – if that was the case the musicians would not be able to predict where the beat would land. One way of doing this is conducting in a figure-of-8 shape:

Perhaps the most helpful thing for the musicians is a gentle rise and fall for the beats that travel on the horizontal plane. Think of a gentle rolling hillside and not a high mountain! When done correctly, with the peak of the shape halfway to the next ictus (in terms of time and distance) the musicians will be able to predict with a higher degree of certainty where and when the next beat will take place. When a written tempo is constantly changing, this can allow for a higher level of control. Here is a diagram to illustrate this.

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Flexibility of the wrist is crucial in developing a high degree of control with the baton. The next video contains a great exercise to practise this. Make yourself conduct a wide range of tempi, dynamics, and articulations as you do this.

Finally, to encourage more horizontal movement and less vertical gestures, restricting the range of vertical movement possible is a very helpful tool.

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