Creative Conducting: 15 Conducting Tips for Inspired Musicianship

Mike Lawson • Archives • March 1, 2010

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As a conductor, you have one of the most creative jobs in the world you sculpt sound with your hands! You evoke, shape, and inspire sound with your conducting. Have you ever asked a snare drummer to keep time for your ensemble? Many conductors are the visual equivalent of our snare drummer. If you were given the task of inventing conducting, would you pound the air on every beat regardless of the musical impetus? Or, rather, would you craft a set of gestures that indicates all aspects of the music, not just the meter. If you choose the latter, imagine your conducting as the artistic catalyst to inspired music making.

Tip #1 – Conduct the music, not the pattern. Conduct only that which is in the music no more and no less. There is much more to music than the delineation of the meter. Time-beating usually results in over-conducting. Even lovely gestures, if not called for in the music, should not be present in the conducting. Look for techniques, clinics, or instructional materials to help you get out of the pattern box. Applying the language of Rudolf Laban may be helpful.

Tip #2 – Conduct the music, not the musicians. Allow each musician to assume responsibility for maintaining pulse, subdividing, entrances, and releases. You initiate and define the time, cue entrances and releases, but you do not function as a traffic cop directing a chaotic intersection.

Tip #3 – Display the information in the tip of the baton. Imagine paint flowing from the tip of your baton on to your imaginary canvass. It flows smoothly in legato passages, creates dabs in normal articulations, and dots in staccato passages. The pulse should not be in your elbow. Preparatory beats should not be given with your head. By focusing on the tip of the baton, your body will automatically adjust to the most efficient movement.

Tip #4 – Use the smallest tool for the job. Don’t use a hammer to insert a small screw. Similarly, don’t use your entire arm to depict light or normal articulations. Use the smallest hinge appropriate for the task: fingers, wrist, elbow, shoulder, body. With a normal-sized 15 inch baton, you can trace a 15 inch arc from horizontal to vertical using only your wrist hinge. Add your elbow hinge and you are tracing 24-30 inches of space–more than enough for most musical situations. By using the smallest hinge appropriate for the music, you avoid over-conducting, beating the air, and large patterns.

Tip #5 – Address your ensemble. Conductors often allow the baton to point to the left side of the ensemble. Hold the baton comfortably in your hand. Relax your fingers and wrist with just enough tension to maintain control of the baton. The baton is an extension of your forearm. It should not angle significantly to the left.

Tip #6 – Stay grounded. Avoid going up on your toes by keeping your feet flat on the podium. This often occurs on preparatory beats. (Video yourself from the side.)

Tip #7 – Avoid deep knee bends. Allow your knees to be relaxed, yet stable. Let’s leave the knee bends to our beloved drum majors. (Video yourself from the side.)

Tip #8 – Move your baton up and down at the same rate of speed. All beats have some type of upward and downward impetus that emulates the laws of physics. If you toss a small bean bag in the air, its landing is completely predictable. This predictable motion is helpful to the musicians. Do not rush to the downbeat or jerk the baton up quickly after the ictus is given. You may not realize you are doing this, so please record your conducting. If you flick your baton up too quickly, you will become an “upbeat conductor.” The pulse will appear to be on your upbeat instead of your downbeat.

Tip #9 – Begin with the end in mind. Show the musicians the location of the ictus by starting in that position. In other words, begin the beat where the beat concludes.

Tip #10 – Release with your left hand. An elliptical motion with the left hand clarifies your intention for a release. Right hand motions may be interpreted as an indication to play the next note. When releases occur at the end of sections, movements, or compositions where there is not another note, right hand releases are perfectly acceptable.

Tip #11 – Begin with your baton parallel with the floor. Often conductors allow the ictus to drift too high, sometimes chest and above. Save this position for indicating registration. For example, triangle cues are higher than trombone cues. Keep your elbows away from your torso and forward of your ribs. Many old (and some contemporary) conducting texts illustrate a fundamental position that is too high. The fundamental position for conducting includes:

  1. Baton and forearm parallel with floor (or just slightly higher).
  2. Forearms angled toward each other (45 degrees from elbow to wrist).
  3. Elbows in front of your torso (45 degrees from shoulder to elbow).

Tip #12 – All beats should move up and down, not in a straight line. All gestures that describe a beat should have an upward and downward impetus. The more pronounced the musical articulation required, the more vertical the beat. The less pronounced the musical articulation required, the more horizontal the beat. Choose a pattern that aligns each ictus along a horizontal plane. Since a straight line does not indicate a beat, the “floor-wall-wall-ceiling” pattern is not the best tool.

Tip #13 – Don’t mirror. Develop independence in your gestures. There is rarely a reason to mirror. If your left hand is not adding to the musical interpretation, it is adding to the confusion. Imagine your left hand:

  1. Resting comfortably at your side.
  2. Cueing entrances.
  3. Releasing sound.
  4. Increasing or decreasing volume.
  5. Signaling attention something is going to change.
  6. Shaping a phrase.
  7. Sustaining sound.
  8. Encouraging a musician.

Tip #14 – If the air keeps moving, your hands keep moving. When you stop your hands, the musicians tend to stop the air. If you intend for the sound to sustain, keep your gestures in motion. If the air, the bow, or the roll is moving, your hands should continue moving. Your conducting should emulate a violinist moving her bow. Your ictus depicts how you want the bow, tongue, stick, or mallet to initiate sound.

Tip #15 – Trust your performers. Allow them to come to you. Train them to watch and respond. Teach them to internalize time. Expect that they will assume responsibility for the music. You will get exactly what you expect from your ensemble. This is true of young musicians as well as more experienced musicians.

Tip #16 – Record yourself on video. One video study session can lead to tremendous improvements. You may notice a hitch at the top of the beat, an extra curly-que between beats, an oversized pattern, “thinking-man” expression, traffic-cop cueing, excessive mirroring, head in the score, or any number of issues that are easily resolved.

Go easy on yourself as this is supposed to be a joyous activity. Whatever undesirable habits you have developed can be replaced with more artistic gestures. Visualize yourself conducting the music with tremendous artistry. Compare the video to the image in your mind. Allow yourself to gradually transition into the conductor you see in your imagination. Once you begin to move in the right direction, you will notice a rapid change. Remember: Your conducting makes a difference in the sound of the ensemble!

J. Steven Moore is the director of bands at Colorado State University, where he conducts the wind ensemble and the marching band. As an associate professor of Music and assistant chair of the Department of Music, Theatre, and Dance, Dr. Moore also teaches music education and conducting courses. Prior to this position, Dr. Moore spent four years as the assistant band director at the University of Kentucky and 10 years before that as the band director at Lafayette High School and Jesse Clark Middle School, in Lexington, Kentucky, during which time the LHS won 6 state marching band championships and was awarded the Sudler Shield. Visit his Web site,

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