What orchestras want to see from conductors

Nobody is ever going to ask me to give a conducting masterclass so I’m just going to write my thoughts down in case any conductor who happens to come across this post is interested in finding out what an orchestral player might want to see

I have never harboured any illusions that I would have been particularly good as a conductor. I took conducting classes at music college and on a good day I can get a section of eight double bass players to follow my lead, but it has always been the collaborative aspect of music that has suited me more. There’s a huge range of qualities required to conduct orchestras well – among others you need musicianship, charisma and authority, and it helps to have good looks, ambition and a thick skin – but in this article I’m going to focus on one skill that is needed to make the lives of orchestral players easier – a clear beat. Some conductors, even very famous ones, are so blessed with other talents that they manage to be successful despite having a poor technique.

I have spent the best part of half a century watching other people having a go at conducting so I have a fair idea of what works and what doesn’t. I’ve played under hundreds of different maestri including famous names like Abbado, Boulez, Giulini, Haitink, Mackerras, Marriner, Mehta, Rattle and many others. Even though I’ve undoubtedly watched many more conductors in action than anyone who actually earns a living as a conductor has, nobody is ever going to ask me to give a conducting masterclass (and I’m certainly not going to offer any advice to someone who is standing on the podium in front of me!) so I’m just going to write my thoughts down in case any conductor who happens to come across this post is interested in finding out what an orchestral player might want to see.

A good orchestra can play together 95% of the time without any input at all from a conductor so it’s quite possible for the man or woman on the box to get away with an unclear beat without the audience (or the conductor themselves!) being aware of it. Some of the problems I describe below have become so prevalent among conductors that I worry that some of them are being taught as good practice by conducting professors.

The basic movement

The basic pattern

I’m only going to talk about conducting 4 in a bar, although everything I write applies equally to other beat patterns. The basic movement for 4 beats is down, left, right, up. (In fact one of my colleagues once saw the letters D, L, R and U written above every beat in the score of a famous instrumentalist making his first recording as a conductor.) But conducting in straight lines doesn’t give a precise indication of when the click of each beat actually happens. It’s fine for showing which beat of the bar you are on in an aural test, but it won’t get an orchestra to play together.

The worst conductor I have seen

(Even showing which beat of the bar you are on is beyond some conductors. The very worst conductor I have ever played under at any level from school orchestra upwards was a famous pianist who has somehow carved an international career for himself as a conductor despite having no discernible ability. At times he conducted by poking a finger at the start of each one of these imaginary straight lines. This meant that during the first beat of the bar his finger was travelling upwards and so on. It was exactly the same as having someone constantly beating a beat behind.)

Good conducting

A clear beat that is easy to follow

The time-tested way of conducting clearly is to have an imaginary horizontal line in the air that you only touch at the click of each beat. It’s as though you have a drum in mid-air in front of you and you are beating time on it. The initial upbeat shows the orchestra where the line is and after that, they can predict when each beat will happen because they can see when the baton is approaching the imaginary line. It’s best if the movement continues at a smooth pace. If you want to delay a beat, you make a larger loop before it rather than slowing your beat down. The orchestra knows when to play because they can see when you are approaching the imaginary line.

If you conduct using this pattern, you can vary the size of the beats, the angle at which you approach the line and all sorts of other things while still giving a clear beat. There is no doubt where to play, the ensemble will be good and everybody will be happy. So what can go wrong?

Common errors

Fourth beat at the wrong height

The first thing that can go wrong is if the clicks of your beat are at different heights. The orchestra will not play together if the click of your beat happens away from your imaginary line. The pattern shown here has the fourth beat at a different height from all the others so the players will not be able to foresee when it’s going to happen. You see diagrams like this all the time. Presumably they are thought less confusing to interpret than diagrams where the lines cross but your fourth beats won’t be together if you conduct like this.

Abrupt changes of direction

Another important thing is that your baton (or finger or pencil or whatever you are using to indicate the beat) should never stop moving. Every time you suddenly change direction you stop even if only for a moment. This creates uncertainty and makes it harder to predict where the next beat comes. That’s why the pattern shown here (which is based on several diagrams you will find on the web if you google conducting in 4) is not as easy for the orchestra to follow. Every abrupt change of direction between the beats means your baton is not moving at a constant speed. If your movement is not smooth the orchestra cannot predict when you will reach the imaginary line.

Fourth beat is mistimed

It’s worth noticing that the clicks of the beats come roughly at the end of the straight lines of the basic pattern except the last beat. Sometimes you see conductors make the correct pattern but put the click of the fourth beat at the top of their beat. This is extremely offputting because it means they touch the imaginary line long before they should. It feels like they are conducting the fourth beat consistently early.

Occasionally one sees a conductor conduct with an extra loop so that the fourth beat goes to the right instead of the left. You would think that this makes no difference for timekeeping, but it has the effect of repeating the movement of beat 3. It looks to the orchestra like you are subdividing the third beat (123+) and never get to the fourth beat. Once again it is extremely offputting.

Beating ahead

Conductors say that they have to beat ahead of the orchestra to stop the performance grinding to a halt. They say orchestras need time to react to what they see. I’m sure there is a case for this (although not at the moments when there is something that is very difficult to get together). If conductors use a clear pattern slightly ahead of the beat then there is no problem.

Putting the clicks at the top of the beat – very difficult to follow

Unfortunately, though, beating ahead very often degenerates to the situation where the click of the beat occurs at the end of the beat with a stationary baton as it changes direction rather than on the imaginary line where the baton is moving. The beating pattern shown here manages to incorporate most of the common errors I have described above – the baton stops between each beat and the clicks of the beats are all at different heights. Conducting like this gives the impression of conducting upside down because the energy goes upwards on most beats. It is very hard to follow at the moments when you need a clear beat yet it seems that more and more conductors show time this way. Is someone teaching them to do this? If they are then please can they stop! It is impossible to get a ritardando together if it depends on everyone guessing when a decelerating baton will stop moving.

If you are conducting like this and the orchestra is always absolutely together, then congratulations. You are lucky enough to be working with a fine orchestra that can play together without your help. You can just relax and enjoy yourself without worrying about the ensemble!

Thank you for reading this far, especially if you’re a conductor. If you agree with what I’ve written then I’m pleased and I hope we work together some time. If you disagree and think that the last diagram is the correct way to conduct, I hope you will at least give it some further consideration now that you know orchestral players don’t like it!