6.4 Some Other Difficult Things to Conduct!

We have already considered starting Beethoven’s Symphony No.5 during the discussion on active and passive preparatory beats back in Technique Chapter 2. You might want to revisit that or take a quick look if you’ve arrived here without looking at that. Assuming you can get everyone to play the first measure together, here are some further points to bear in mind:

2, 5You need to decide whether to cut off the fermatas at the end of these measures. That’s a matter of choice and whichever you choose you might find the material in Technique 3 on fermatas helpful in executing your chosen interpretation. 
If you choose not to cut, you are delegating the responsibility for the players coming off together to the concertmaster. This is no bad thing, but with a non-professional orchestra you might need to train the wind and brass players to look at the concertmaster more and you less – also no bad thing.
4-5Whereas the first fermata (measure 2) comes straight after the eighth notes, there is a half note in measure 4 tied to the fermata in measure 5. Because of that it is conventional practice to passively indicate the beginning of measure 5
6In many ways, getting it going in here (2nd violins in the original) is harder than the opening because it is quiet and only one section plays. It’s very easy for this to be a little slower than you might want so it is important to be positive.
7-18It is then very possible for the entrances in measures 7 and 8 to be unstable. The conductor must know this from memory, and we suggest that cueing with eye contact is more likely to be effective than with the hands
Listen carefully to make sure a regular, continuous line of eighth notes is present; a common issue is that the players are late coming off a tie, resulting in the 3 eighth notes being squeezed together and sounding a little bit like triplets
21Make it clear that the 1st violins continue but everyone else only has a quarter note – there is no need to cut this fermata as it is only for one section
When conducting the whole movement, an important consideration is how to phrase this music. Certainly, there is a feeling of 4-measure periods but we would suggest not falling into a way of beating which looks like a 4/4 pattern. Instead, maintain the feeling of being in 1 (this is what the composer wrote!) and use variations in the intensity of gesture, the left hand, and the front-to-back space to communicate your phrasing decisions
Finally, you will see there is a fourth video of this extract where the players play without a conductor. Don’t forget that if we over-complicate matters it can often be easier for them if we are not there!

Another piece much in favour for conducting auditions and competitions is Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat. The small ensemble and the challenges presented throughout make The Soldier’s Tale a very important work to study for all conductors. In the opening movement, Stravinsky uses one of his favourite compositional devices: starting off in 2/4 the double bass plays on the beat and carries on in that same groove. However, as 3/8 measures are thrown in, the bass line is constantly shifting on and off the beat. This is a great test of a conductor’s inner rhythmic solidity.

We have created our own little exercise which enables you to work in this rhythmic challenge. 

  • ask the player on the bass line not to look at you, and just play in a constant tempo as if the whole thing was in 2/4. Therefore, if your 3/8 measures are anything other than perfect it will fall apart! 
  • as we have suggested previously, you can first practise this with a metronome set to play constant eighth notes. Start slower and build up the tempo. Keep the gesture small and calm: your first priority is rhythm and ensemble, dynamics and character can come later
  • the tempo of 112 beats per minute is fast enough, don’t be tempted to go any faster regardless of whether you are doing our version or Stravinsky’s
  • when you can do this pretty well, try marching on the spot in 2/4… “left, right, left right, left right…” while conducting the excerpt. If you can master that, a career in contemporary music could be something to consider!

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