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Home > Articles > Conducting Clearly and Expressively

Conducting Clearly and Expressively
Kevin McChesney
DYNAMICS - The most obvious musical direction you can give with your conducting besides the beat and tempo is dynamics. The principle is very simple - bigger movements mean louder, smaller movements mean softer.
Directing dynamics has two considerations:

1) Conducting with enthusiasm (or nervousness, as the case may be) is not the same as conducting dynamics! As you get more excited or anxious, your movements tend to get bigger. Stay in the character of the piece. Excitement can still be communicated at a soft dynamic level using small but clear movements.
2) Your job as director is to REMIND the ringers what to do. That means you have to anticipate. If the music is to get suddenly loud on beat 1 of measure 42, you need to give a strong indication with a larger upbeat on the last beat of measure 41. Your movements in directing are always a step ahead to indicate what is coming.

CUES - Cues for entrances (whether for one ringer or a whole group of ringers) should be carefully practiced. The left hand may be used to indicate an entrance. A cue needs to be given by facing the ring or ringers who are to enter as far as is practical, and making a preparatory motion the beat before the entrance. Clearly, it’s too late to bring ringers in on the beat they are to enter. Give a strong, confident motion (though not necessarily a large one) the beat before the entrance; if your motions are confident and solid, the entrance will be, too.
A trick for cues that works quite well is to actually take a breath as you cue. It’s like taking a breath before singing a phrase. Clearly, the ringer does not need to have this breath the same way a singer does, but if YOU, the director, take a breath as if YOU were going to sing the phrase, it brings the ringer in on time and with more confidence. Try it - it does work!

CUT-OFFS - A cut-off does not need to have a fancy or intricate movement. The simplest way is the best - hold still, then give two short motions, one up, one down, returning to where you started. Prepare, cut. At most, you might add a simple closing of the fingers with either hand, but there is no need for an e-shaped motion, or any more elaborate movement.

CHARACTER - Your motions remind the ringers of the character of the piece. If you are using broad, flowing motions, so will they. If you are using sharper, march-like motions, so will they. Remember to make your beats bounce on that imaginary table, regardless of the character of the piece!

ANTICIPATE - The second most important function of the conductor, after indicating clear beats in a clear tempo, is to REMIND ringers of what is coming. The director ANTICIPATES the musical elements to come, and makes indications BEFORE the ringers play. Examples:

A larger beat just before a change from piano to forte.

A smoother beat just before the change to a more flowing section.

A stronger beat just before a ritard. (This indicates “watch me - it’s going to change!”)

A clear beat and a breath before an entrance.

Lifting the left hand before a cut-off.

The indicators can take on many forms. The important thing is to anticipate and indicate things before they happen.

This leads to the next important subject:

PRACTICE - You as director have some homework to do. Clear directing is a PRACTICED skill. Go over your music ahead of time, listening to the music in your head or as someone plays it for you on a keyboard, or listening to a recording of the piece. Physically conduct the piece as you do this - just listening does not constitute practice! Be sure you can anticipate all cues, dynamics, fermatas, cut-offs, changes in tempo, changes in meter, etc.

THE MIRROR is the best tool to use to develop your conducting skills. It may seem intimidating at first, but the mirror gives strong, accurate, and indispensable information as to what information you are communicating to your ringers.

As you direct in front of a mirror, ask yourself if you could follow what you see. What would you change? Is the downbeat standing out from the rest? Do the beats clearly bounce in a clean pattern? Is your hand flipping or bouncing? Are yourmovements too big to be clear, too small? Are you indicating loud, soft, slower, more flowing? Are you mirroring with your left hand too much? When you do use your left hand, is it giving clear and important information?

SUMMARY - Clear beats with a clear “bounce” give ringers all the information they need for tempo and counting. (Note that this information is NOT on the printed page, though many ringers are convinced it is. The ringers’ job is to continually develop their skill in watching the director; the director’s job is to continually strive to give as much helpful musical information as possible.) Use carefully practiced movements to indicate dynamics, cues, cut-offs, etc. And above all, anticipate these elements.

Which brings us to one final important function of the director:

INSPIRATION - When you direct with confidence, your ringers ring with confidence. And your movements become clearer and more expressive. Those who are newer to conducting find it hard to direct with strong, clear movements, particularly if they are “flipping” their beats. The best thing you can do for you and your choir is to DIRECT WITH CONFIDENCE ANYWAY! If you make your motions strong and the way you present yourself is kept in character with the music, you cannot help but inspire a more musical and rewarding performance.