IV. common conducting patterns
Meter is kinetic; it can be expressed by bodily movement. A conductor is responsible for establishing the tempo and, more importantly, as the famous conductor Sir George Solti said, communicating the “architecture” of the music. You may think of the hand motion involved in conducting meter as choreography—a kind of dance through the architecture of music. If these conducting patterns are unfamiliar to you, it is worth spending time practicing them until they become automatic (that is, until you can produce them in an even tempo while talking to someone).
Patterns representing counts of two, three, and four beats are the most frequently used by conductors. Each pattern is illustrated below in two ways: first as an abstract, purely directional representation in straight lines, and then in a more elaborate continuous shape resembling more closely a conductor’s actual gesture. Right hand gestures are shown; the left hand produces a mirror image of the patterns illustrated. Practice with both hands as well as separately with each.
The X’s appearing in a shaped gesture indicate an “ictus,” made by a slight flick of the wrist to show the exact moment of the beat. (The importance of incorporating an ictus for each beat will be impressed upon you if you try to conduct a group using entirely “smoothed-out” motions.)
The two, or duple pattern is basically an up and down motion. Say or think “1” “2” as you make the ictus for each count:
The three, or triple pattern adds an outward gesture for the second beat. That is, count 2 is to the right for the right hand and to the left for the left hand: “1-down, 2-out, 3-up” to the beginning of the next count 1:
The four, or quadruple pattern adds an inward gesture for count 2: “1-down, 2-in, 3-out, 4-up” to the beginning of the next count 1:
Conducting music you hear and study (and imagine!) is an excellent way to add these patterns to your overall musical technique. You will find that with many duple metric passages, you can conduct either the 2- or the 4-pattern, noticing that the “count 1’s” of the duple pattern occur twice as fast as the “count 1’s” in the quadruple pattern. You may find it surprising that when listening to a measured passage that communicates a triple feel, it is still possible to conduct in 2 or in 4 at different speeds.
Earlier it was mentioned that a conducting pattern gives only some of the information about a metric structure. In fact, using a standard pattern conveys only two levels of a metric structure. As shown in Ex. 15, the 2-pattern communicates the counted level (B in the first structure) and the one above it. By doubling the tempo of the 2-pattern, the conductor can communicate levels B and C, or, with another doubling of tempo, levels C and D.
Conduct the patterns in x), y), and z) below. Choose a very slow tempo for level B and maintain it through all three examples. Take a cue from the graphics and make your gestures smaller as you conduct the faster levels.
Using the 4-pattern still conveys information about two levels only; however, in this case the levels are not adjacent (see levels A and C, and B and D below). The missing (middle) level—B in the first instance, C in the next— may be implied by giving some physical emphasis to count 3.
Practice conducting Ex. 16 in the same way as Ex. 15.
By using what is referred to as a “subdivided beat,” the conductor can express a third pulse stream, resulting in a gesture which signals the beat, the “count 1” of the beat grouping, and the (faster) pulse stream that divides the beat. To show a division of the beat that is a faster duple pulse stream, another ictus may be added after each one marking a beat. X’s are added in the examples below to show approximately where they should be placed. The result is often counted “1-and 2-and... ” (See Example 17).
A triple division of the beat, counted “1-and-a 2-and-a 3-and-a...,” can be indicated by adding a third ictus to each beat (see Example 18):
If you study conducting further you will learn that there are many ways of subdividing beats and a great variety of gestures to communicate how you wish the music to be played or sung. The patterns shown here are meant only to give you some experience expressing subdivision while maintaining the standard patterns.