As conductors we often feel that our students need us to conduct strict time patterns, believing that they will become lost and disoriented without them. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that they are, or should be the time keepers; we are, or should be the time givers. As the conductor, we are responsible for both the choosing and delivering of tempi. It is the ensemble’s responsibility to keep the time until we wish to adjust it for interpretative reasons. If you are finding yourself endlessly asking your ensemble to watch you, it may be that simply keeping time for them is insufficient to engage their curiosity and interest. If they are capable of keeping time without our help then we need to offer a more creative approach to conducting which will attract, engage and hold their attention.
If you want to go beyond conducting time patterns and communicate a more expressive interpretation, here are five tips to consider:
- The very nature and shape of the three basic patterns (and other asymmetric configurations) are actually designed to convey aural and visual shapes within the context of meter. All we need do is to work on moulding our standard patterns into shapes that look like, and reflect the style and character of the music we are performing. The best place for finding expressive gesture inspiration is to watch proven conductors effectively employ music shapes that produce emotionally charged, exciting, significant performances.
- It is important that we regularly engage in active music listening, and watch a variety of live, or recorded music performances. We can then begin to experience, like children how to move, or look like the music. Do not be afraid to experiment… while in your listening/watching mode!
- Provide rehearsal time for your ensemble to play chorales, ensemble etudes, rhythm exercises or passages from your performance repertoire ‘un-conducted’. It is a brilliant way to pass music-making ownership and responsibility on to your students. It also develops ensemble listening skills like no other exercise. In fact, it proves that they can be more in-charge of music-making then they ever believed possible. And, it frees you from the need to ‘keep time’, allowing you to focus on the business of inspirational musical direction and leadership! I seldom conduct the first 20 minutes of my rehearsals. This portion usually consists of Ed Lisk’s “Alternative Rehearsal Techniques of the Circle of 4ths”, scale/arpeggio exercises, rhythm vocabulary studies, ensemble etude exercises, and finally, chorales: all un-conducted!
- Video record your rehearsals. This is an incredibly powerful tool, not only for considered reflection on your rehearsal technique, but also for observing on how well you effectively communicate your musical interpretations. I suppose my favourite question to myself when observing my rehearsal videos is, ”would I enjoy and be inspired by my musical body language and visual communication skills”?
- Finally, reach down into your personal musicianship and take a step of faith by asking ‘what does the music itself demand of me, and how can I best communicate my beliefs to my ensemble? What is more necessary; the projecting of time or expressive phrasing, and is it possible to creatively convey both? Even beginner ensembles can be taught to play perfectly in time without our help by simply breathing in the time and listening to each other, while we occupy ourselves with the more important issue of phrasing, shaping and inflection.