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Conducting Gestures and Tempi

Conducting is about far more than "keeping the beat"; conductors also use gestures to convey phrase shaping, tempo and dynamics. Choral conducting has added complexity, because the gestures also have a profound effect on vocal weight, tone color; and how singers breathe, form vowels, pronounce consonants and stay in tune. Furthermore, the wrong gestures can actually work against the singers, producing the opposite of the desired effect. In this entry, I'll focus on using gestures to convey a tempo and tempo changes.

  1. The quicker the tempo, the smaller and lighter the gesture. Imagine your favorite speedy arrangement of the Paschal stichera ("Let God arise..."). I find it's most effective to use wrist and hand flicks; my upper arms aren't locked, but they really don't move very much.

  2. The size of the pattern matters. In a slow piece, the pattern may be quite large. Unfortunately, when the tempo gets faster, some directors keep the pattern size the same, only moving their hands more quickly between the beats. This is a crucial habit to break, as doing this is apt to make the sound heavier — and because it's very difficult to sing heavily and quickly, this technique may actually slow the choir down.

  3. To establish a slower tempo, especially in media res, reverse the aforementioned principles. The gestures should get considerably larger and smoother. It needs to be obvious that the tempo, it is a-changin' — especially if some of the singers aren't watching as closely as they should (and let's be real: at least one of 'em won't be.)

  4. One of the trickiest situations is establishing a sprightly tempo after a dramatic rallentando, fermata or other pause in the music (for example, bringing the choir in for the second half of the Cherubic Hymn). The breath gesture is of paramount importance here (more on this issue in an upcoming post). The breath needs to have the tempo and character of the upcoming phrase. This doesn't guarantee that every singer will immediately "get" the precise tempo, but it sure does increase the chances of it.

I hope some will find this helpful!

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