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Conducting Improvement: Vocabulary and More

by William L. Berz

The Big Picture

Alan McMurray, Professor of Conducting at the University of Colorado, released a terrific new DVD on conducting recently. In the accompanying booklet, he lists some subjects/topics that conductors must study in order to effectively lead musicians.

  • Knowledge of music history, performance practice, style and resource materials necessary to supplement that knowledge.
  • Familiarity with music forms and compositional techniques including harmony, melody, rhythm, orchestration and instrumentation.
  • Aural skills development, which include the ability to sing and identify all intervals, melodic lines, chords and arpeggios, and rhythms.
  • Knowledge of all transpositions, clefs and music terminology.
  • Most importantly, the achievement of a high artistic level as a performer on a solo instrument or voice.

McMurray’s requirements are insightful, but also a bit intimidating because of their breadth. Conductors do face considerable responsibilities to have musical background of sufficient scope to be able to convey the best musical insight necessary to make a meaningful musical performance.

It is interesting that McMurray does not even mention physical gesture at this point. The list reflects only a prerequisite course of study, a knowledge base required before one becomes a conductor. And this list may, in fact, be too narrow as only musical subjects are provided. Study of all subjects, especially those in the arts, help to further broaden and shape one’s vision.

This kind of study and reflection is certainly a lofty goal and not accomplished in a quick and easy fashion. Even so, one must realize that these are the most important elements in conducting. Improvement is a worthy goal no matter how experienced the conductor. Conducting should be an exercise in life-long learning. It is a combination of musical conception with an ability to shape and communicate.

Communication: Conveying the image

Good communication is important for all teachers regardless of subject. Although “classroom” teachers employ a variety of means to foster learning, most center on verbal communication: teachers tell students what to do. However, conductors operate in a different world. They use two ways to convey information to the ensemble: verbal and nonverbal.

The physical part of conducting is obviously an entirely nonverbal activity. Therefore it is absolutely imperative that conductors be able to convey musical intentions to the ensemble through gesture, movement, and physical expression. Through a tradition of defined motions, conductors provide information about meter, tempo, dynamics, phrasing, style, as well as many other musical conventions – the vocabulary of conducting. One’s ability to clearly communicate contributes strongly to his/her musical and educational effectiveness.
Teachers also impart other kinds of information nonverbally. Smiles and frowns are the most obvious examples, showing positive and negative reactions. The nonverbal world is complex and communication does not stop with conducting gestures.

Conductors must also be good verbal communicators. The end performance is shaped during the rehearsals. While nonverbal conducting is still of foremost importance, verbal communication is obviously a major element in conveying information to student performers. Some conductors are excellent verbal communicators and are able to address many musical issues to the students’ great benefit. However, with some other situations, there can be excessive talk – long-winded lectures and storytelling for example – that do little to improve musical understanding. This should obviously be avoided.

Conductors must be able to balance verbal and nonverbal approaches, using each when best suited. Both channels of communication are important in successfully communicating with student musicians. However, given the very nature of conducting, it is the nonverbal that elicits the most interest.

The Nonverbal Vocabulary

Physical movement is the basic vocabulary for communicating musical impressions to the ensemble. All of the musical insights gleaned from score study combined with one’s musical background are conveyed to the ensemble through these means. If one is limited in her/his ability to impart this information, results will be, at best, limited.

It is an area where improvement can be made, sometimes remarkably quickly. There are countless numbers of books, articles, and videos that cover many of these aspects of conducting. The McMurray DVD is but one example.

One of the best ways to improve the physical element of conducting is to separate the various tasks into discreet units and then work on each to develop more and better ways to communicate – to enlarge and refine one’s vocabulary. Because conducting is so complex, study and practice need to be dissected into its various components to make the task manageable.

Conductors communicate with ensembles through a variety of nonverbal channels. They include the obvious (left hand, right hand, facial expression, posture, eye contact) and the less recognized (clothing, use of podium, use of space, movement of the trunk, time management, choice of baton, and many others.) Many of these secondary elements of communication center on the rehearsal setting; many are organizational in nature. For example, choice to use a podium or not is a decision that is important but does not require any sustained effort. (Research tends to favor use of a podium in showing authority, although movement off the podium might then be an issue. A conductor’s height is a major factor in what kind of podium to use.) The basic organization of the rehearsal room tends to indirectly influence how students behave. Teachers should consider these kinds of issues.

The physical side of conducting demands more continuous attention and study. While facial expression, posture, eye contact are vital components to communication, the left and right hands and arms receive most of the focus. How can we convey musical messages more effectively using our hands?

Practice the Actions

Since the nonverbal actions of conducting are physical, they require training just like any other physical activity. Communicative conducting requires considerable refinement, this obtainable only through reflective study and practice. Instrumental performers well understand the necessity of careful practice for long periods of time over an extended number of years to master their craft. Yet many of the most thoughtful conductors never work on the physical aspects of conducting and their basic technique therefore suffers.

The right hand is used mostly to convey pulse and meter. Most conductors are quite proficient in showing a clear beat. While the right hand can be quite expressive while conveying pulse through size and style of the beat, its primary function remains conveyance of tempo. This is certainly a very important job since one of the main functions of a conductor is to set time in motion. Conductors can emote all that they want, but without pulse and time, there is nothing.

Through observing many conductors, I have identified the most common ways that people use the left hand (in order of use):

  1. Showing the beat (often mirroring the right hand)
  2. Cues, expressive and/or functional
  3. Release of a phrase or ending with a fermata
  4. Resting position, hand in front of body or on the side without motion
  5. A short (1-3 beats) expressive gesture of some kind
  6. A long (4 beats or more) expressive gesture, as in a long crescendo
  7. Static expressive gesture

Because the left hand is not primarily responsible for keeping the beat, it is allowed considerably more freedom of movement and function than the right. However, many conductors show very little variety in their use of the left hand. This is due in large part to the physical challenge of having independence of left and right hands. Simply put, it is difficult to make the two hands do different things at the same time. As an example, some conductors almost always mirror the left and right hands showing the beat pattern in both because it is the easiest thing to do. This is redundant in most situations. It would be better to use the left hand to cue, show dynamics or style, and indicate phrasing. Partly because of how basic conducting is taught perhaps, another common use of the left hand is for cues.

Gestures of short duration (1-3 beats) are easier to do with the left hand because of the independence of hands issue. It is simply less cognitively complicated to do gestures that do not significantly conflict with the right hand. Short actions are less difficult than longer ones. Conducting technique must be developed so that the left hand can work separately from the right.

Almost all conductors (and I certainly include myself) would benefit greatly being able to use the left hand in movements separately from the right for the expressive purpose. The noted conducting teacher, Elizabeth Green, provides a number of excellent exercises for developing independence of hands (see below). Her exercises work to train mind and body while developing good technique.

One basic exercise to help expand left hand ability is to conduct 4/4 time in the right hand while doing long crescendos/decrescendos (up-down or in-out) in the left, 4 or more beats. Making the gesture 6 beats long is even more difficult since the action no longer aligns with the meter and the hands really have to work separately. This will help in one’s ability to indicate long phrases (see # 6 above). Another drill is to set a pattern of random cues where the gestures come on different beats, perhaps on a different beat in each measure – anything where the hands are independent. One must force the hands and brain to work. After all, no pain – no gain!

These kinds of activities are really directed toward developing technique. These drills are not unlike instrumentalists practicing scales; they are a path toward greater skill development. They are not an end in themselves but a means to increasing one’s abilities. Much of this kind of basic physical conducting is technical. Better technique leads to better communication.


Score study (preparation), physical conducting (communication), and ear training (evaluation) are key elements to being a competent conductor. As stated before, being a musical leader and teacher requires considerable effort.

Unfortunately, sometimes it is possible to “get by” – coasting in regards to many of the elements in conducting. This is understandable given the everyday demands of the job. Teaching is very time and energy consuming. However in terms of the physical side of conducting alone, communication skills and expressiveness will decline. When this occurs, teacher and students alike will suffer.

Teaching is a significant and noble calling, even if those looking in from the outside do not always appreciate it. Ideally, it is an exercise in life-long learning. Regardless of the level of experience, one needs to continue to work to sharpen and improve skills. Because of its inherent complexity, there is an especially important need for continued growth in conducting if one is to to remain vital. The better one does, the greater the reward.

In an ideal world, conductors would have the time and energy to devote to a myriad of activities for self improvement, including reading on a great variety of subjects to develop greater breadth, attending many different kinds of concerts, observing professional rehearsals – just to name a few. Unfortunately, hardly any people have the time to do these types of things on a regular basis. However that does not mean that one should not try.

Both beginning and advanced conductors alike need to spend time studying and reflecting. Much of the school year is filled with activity; teachers do not have enough time to even complete normal tasks let alone take time for personal development. However summers can be a time when people can devote at least a small amount of time to development. One of the easiest and best ways is to read a professional book. The topic could be almost anything – philosophy to pedagogy – as long as it covers an area leading to potential growth. Many conducting teachers have developed long reading lists. (Let me provide just one suggestion here: The Compleat Conductor by Gunther Schuller; see below). Another great way to energize would be to attend one of the many fine summer conducting seminars held throughout the country. Many universities offer such programs.

Spending just a little time on expansion of conducting philosophy and vocabulary will pay dividends for both conductor and ensemble. Learning is valuable for teachers too.

McMurray, Allan. Conducting from the Inside Out: Gesture and Movement. Program booklet. TellStarr Studios, DVD.