How to follow a conductor who conducts ahead of the beat

September 29, 2016 at 11:24 PM · Hey everyone, I recently joined my college orchestra which is much more advanced overall than the level of my high school string only orchestra. In the high school orchestra, our conductor conducted right on the beat and it was really easy to follow and to know when to come in.

In my college orchestra, it seems like the conductor conducts ahead of the beat. I know that it's a common thing, but I've never played with a conductor like that so I'm a little confused. It seems like everyone knows exactly when to come in on beat 1, say at the beginning of a piece, but to me it looks like the conductor gives a big downbeat, nothing happens, and then we come in seemingly randomly... And then it's hard for me to keep the pulse in my head because I don't really have anything to refer to except for listening to others because the conductor is doing something else.

Any advice?

Replies (31)

September 30, 2016 at 12:03 AM · I've often wondered how an orchestra could stay together despite conducting that has no rhythmic rhyme or reason. My guess is that it forces you to count and to listen to the other musicians. Once you understand where your part fits in with the rest, you will know exactly when to come in, and won't have to rely on the downbeat. There are conductorless orchestras that I think play on this principle

How do they do it?

Perhaps you should watch your conductor's eyebrows more?

Anyway, think of it like chamber music. You take your cues from fellow musicians. I personally think it helps ensemble in general, even if your conductor is right on the beat.

September 30, 2016 at 12:30 AM · Where the beat is can depend on the acoustics of the hall and where you are on-stage. Winds might be with the beat and strings behind the beat, for instance. It takes some getting used to if you're encountering it for the first time.

The answer is that you have to know where the beat is in relation to where you should be playing. Depending on the acoustic, you also have to adjust what you're playing to what you're hearing -- sound does not travel instantaneously and you might need to either anticipate or lag.

September 30, 2016 at 01:08 AM · Some conductors will conduct ahead of the beat to try to speed up the orchestra. Sometimes college conductors are not that good (sometimes they are). I played in an orchestra under the direction of Herbert Blomstedt (before he took over the San Francisco Symphony). This was the largely pro orchestra for his 2-week conducting masterclass that he did in southern California every summer back in the 1970s and the conducting students were mostly college music instructors and conductors - and not so good - but they WERE THERE to learn technique. Blomstedt was a "high beater" whose beat was never obscured by anyone's stand. And his interpretation of the music was always right there in his hands and his face and his body.

But there are conductors who beat too low, or whose beat moves all over the place high-low-in between, enough to make a player sea-sick. And of course there are the ones who conduct for the audience - these are the ones the musicians try to avoid watching so they won't get confused. And then there are the Jr. high conductors who become used to students who read the beat as somewhere in the middle of the stroke - of course not all of them read it there (that's why Jr. high groups sound like that). With bad seating, high stands and low beating the bottom of the beat can often appear different to everyone except the conductor.

But Lydia is right too (as always). If you are more than 25 feet from the sound you are following you will be off by a 16th note (at about 100 quarter notes per minute). If the first chair strings are together and with the winds, and the rest of the strings are with their leaders, things should be OK at the audience.

September 30, 2016 at 01:11 AM · key in on the first chairs for the down beat. From there it was suggested to treat it is as if you were playing chamber music - this is good advice to help you learn the early-beat-conducting.

September 30, 2016 at 01:54 AM · The conductor isn't conducting ahead; the orchestra is playing behind. Most orchestras play behind the beat, some more than others.

September 30, 2016 at 02:13 AM · I never understood this. Way back in the day when I played in orchestras it seemed to me like it was expected to be behind the conductors beat - maybe I just played in bad orchestras. That said, I'm always embarrassed by my string player species when you have a band with a tight rhythm section playing with a string section and the string section has to have a conductor. The other players are using their ears and the string players have to use their eyes?

This kind of thing:

The other players are not looking at a conductor - there is a drummer playing for #@#$ sake!

September 30, 2016 at 02:17 AM · Actually I think it is the bad orchestras that try to play exactly with the conductor's beat; the better orchestras are almost always behind. Here's an interesting discussion on Reddit about this very issue, prompted by a question from someone who had just observed this phenomenon at a Chicago Symphony concert (there are other links of interest within the discussion).

September 30, 2016 at 03:15 AM · Well, that is one of the reasons most of HIP ensembles today do not have a conductor. This is not the first, and most likely not the last time, I hear that conductor is ahead of the orchestra. I wonder if this is in fact an illusion or for real?

Here is a proof that conductors are obsolete if the orchestra is up to the task:

Note how musicians are more alert, interact with each other and take initiative. Body language is quite different than in most other orchestras. Tempo is paradoxically not quite metronomic, but rather alive in its flexibility and music is therefore more fluid.

Then, just look at this amazing example of fantastic collaboration between a conductor and the orchestra:

I always have a feeling that each and every musician of "Chamber Orchestra of Europe" is 100% present and performing as if they were soloists!

Off the topics, but perhaps also relevant.... conductors conducting with no score in front of them: ALL music learned by heart?!?

September 30, 2016 at 04:28 AM · Stop watching the conductor's baton and start watching the principal's bow?

September 30, 2016 at 05:56 AM · If you wait for the principal's bow to move you are going to effectively be late, because you then have to set the string in motion with the bow. That means that you don't get a unified start to the note from the section. It's an okay survival mechanism if you're otherwise lost, but something you want to get past as quickly as possible.

September 30, 2016 at 06:43 AM · The answer is to not look at the stick waver once the piece has started, unless it's a rall or pause bar. Conductors at best are a distraction, at worst a pain in the A.

September 30, 2016 at 12:46 PM · I make it my business to be able to see what my principal is doing. I don't wait for their bow to start moving, I have my bow in place on or just above the string (whichever is required) and it starts moving simultaneously with my principal's. Listening, anticipation and counting are the keys.

One good indicator of a conductor who knows their job is that they have eye contact with a player or section BEFORE an entry. A lesser conductor generally eye contacts uselessly when the entry starts, after, or not at all :(.

One good indicator of a conductor who knows their job is that they have eye contact with a player or section BEFORE an entry. A lesser conductor generally eye contacts uselessly when the entry starts, even after, or not at all :(.

One moan I have is about a number of conductors in rehearsal who are not always heard clearly when they refer to a rehearsal letter ending in the "ee" sound. Typically, several of the orchestra will have gone to "10 bars after D" when the guy on the podium actually said "10 bars after B". It's simple enough to use "B for Bertie", "C for Charlie", "D for David" etc, to avoid these mishearings. This comment is concerned more with amateur ensembles who tend to have a higher proportion of older musicians, than the professionals.

BTW, anyone ever come across a conductor who conducts BEHIND the beat? I think I came close to it once; the guy on the podium's idea of waving the stick was to describe a perfect circle with it. There was no discernible down beat.

September 30, 2016 at 01:53 PM · Friends, the conductor neither conducts ahead or behind the beat; rather, the orchestra is playing either behind or ahead of the beat (hopefully not the latter!). You are confusing dependent and independent variables, or if you prefer, cause and effect. The conductor is the cause; the orchestra is the effect.

The orchestra is not the entity in control here.

September 30, 2016 at 02:08 PM · Mary Ellen,

it all depends on the group dynamics and the type of leadership. You are correct in technical sense that hierarchy must be followed.

It seems that the Alpha male (or female) obeyed no matter the costs, music quality included.

However, beyond a quite authoritarian (and perhaps already bygone) idea of an orchestra, there are nuances of human interactions, give and take, and a dynamic interplay between the alpha, beta... all the way to the "untouchables".

If we stop for a moment and look at the origin of the word, conductor allows the flow of something. In this case, we can assume, allows the flow of ideas from the ink & paper left after a dead composer to live musicians and toward the audience. He/she is not the source, but a conductor, or at best the inter-interpreter of music.

A poor conductor is one ahead of his/her orchestra.

An average just right on time, but perhaps boringly dry.

A great conductor will dance with the orchestra, engage with its members, soloists and groups in a mystery of music making.


September 30, 2016 at 02:28 PM · I find that my conductor will count, then give an up beat at the wrong time, but since he counted, we all know where to start. Also, it is kind of like a syncopated beat. I find that the orchestra uses better emphasise when this occurs.

September 30, 2016 at 03:23 PM · Well, perhaps not at the wrong time, since we all know we to come in anyways.

September 30, 2016 at 03:33 PM · Perhaps I should have said that watching the principal's bow helps you calibrate how far behind the conductor's baton your section should be.

September 30, 2016 at 04:26 PM · In my my experience, you can indeed have three possibilities:

1. The conductor is correct, but the orchestra is behind. Fairly common in good orchestras. Also common in situations where the conductor is autocratic or there may be a fear of job loss--in this case there is a group dynamic where no one wants to be the one to initiate or stick out.

2. The conductor sets a tempo, but can't keep steady and rushes or drags, possibly due to nerves or what they consider to be "spontaneity" or "musicality."

3. A combination of 1 and 2 if there is not a critical mass of very steady players. All you need are some jokers in the back (or front) who tend to rush or drag. Different sections of orchestras tend to have different rhythmic tendencies. For example, percussionists tend to rush, and so do the horns.

Not all conductors can feel a consistent pulse when starting a movement or section--some are better than others. I've had conductors who've had to check a metronome in rehearsal before starting. As a result, each performance can be different, which can confuse an orchestra, especially if different from consistent rehearsal tempi. Also, I've seen some conductors who follow a very predictable arc through a set of concerts: dress rehearsal is very fast, first performance is slightly slower, next performance is very slow, final performance recovers a bit.

Few players or conductors are robots, and there is plenty of blame to go around.

September 30, 2016 at 09:42 PM · Can Miles not just ask this to the conductor privately? Obviously don't tell the conductor he is off beat, but why not just tell him you are confused on when to come in?

October 1, 2016 at 02:08 AM · The answer is that you play with the group--with your stand partner, with your principal, with the other sections. You have to triangulate with everyone on stage. You can't simply follow the conductor yourself. Don't bother asking him. It won't help.

It's just a basic skill of playing in an orchestra.

October 1, 2016 at 04:01 AM · Or, as I sometimes tell students in sectionals, it is more important to be together than it is to be right.

October 1, 2016 at 11:36 PM · Please read the other discussion that I just made called "Reply to the "Conductor" Discussion"

October 1, 2016 at 11:38 PM · I am a conductor of an orchestra with a callibur that all players are basically sight readers. My discussion page can help you be lesser confused about why some conductors look like they are ahead or behind the orchestra (Which you will be a very bad conductor then. Either being ahead or Behind the orchestra.)


October 2, 2016 at 12:59 AM · That Orchestra is playing behind the conductor. Remedy; go with your section leader, play visually. Coming from a mostly commercial music background (ex-Don Ellis band, recording studios, etc.), where there is no conductor, and you have to play on top of the beat, I find that orchestra habit annoying. I don't watch the tip of the baton. I watch the body language that moves the baton. The good conductor leads; he is mentally ahead of the music. The conductor that follows, reacts to the music is useless, he might as well be in the audience.~jq

October 2, 2016 at 05:20 AM · This discussion reminds me of the time, years when I was playing in an orchestra hired to record music for a film. There was already a musical track for that film and the recording we were making was to add to that... In their wisdom, the producers gave headphones only to the conductor, so he alone could hear the existing track. We worked for several hours and the conductor was never able to get the orchestra to play precisely with music none of them could hear (then we had a long break while they arranged for all the musicians to have headphones). The conductor can set the tempo, but in the end the orchestra has to play together by listening and reacting to one another.

October 3, 2016 at 02:19 AM · Simon Rattle came and did a orchestra workshop at conservatory when I was doing undergrad, and he told us, "Don't follow me." I think it's the best advice I'ver ever heard from a conductor.

And watching concertmaster's bow. Can't go wrong with that general advice either.

October 3, 2016 at 04:11 AM · It's true that we never play exactly with a conductor's beat. When things are working well, the reason is so that we can get subtle clues about character and direction a fraction of a second before we need to play them... since we're the ones making the sound and all, not the conductor!

This was the exact reason given by Wolfgang Sawallisch when he admonished an orchestra of mine not to try and "catch up" to him!

October 3, 2016 at 06:39 AM · The Hall√© Orchestra, (Manchester UK) traditionally plays well behind the beat. But one day Danny Kaye came to conduct it - charity event or something.

HE complained, and got them to play "on the beat" - the only conductor ever to do so !!

Whilst to us orchestral hacks conductors seem to be comedians, it takes a REAL one to get us to play with the stick, I guess.

October 3, 2016 at 01:46 PM · All this reminds me of the anecdote I heard decades ago from a professional violinist about a very, very famous conductor (I won't say who), whom in spite of his brilliance and famous recordings had a reputation for being (shall we say) an unsympathetic person and someone roundly disliked by his orchestra (one of the world's greatest). It seems also that he was famous for having a very, very tiny beat, and for making very, very few gestures, arm waving, or bodily movements.

Apparently, during a rehearsal, he noticed that a violist had a small telescope on his music stand. The conductor asked what that was for, and the violist replied, "I'm following your beat."

My understanding is that the violist was immediately fired.

I do so hope that's a true story.



October 3, 2016 at 05:59 PM · " ¬∑ I am a conductor of an orchestra with a callibur that all players are basically sight readers. My discussion page can help you be lesser confused about why some conductors look like they are ahead or behind the orchestra (Which you will be a very bad conductor then. Either being ahead or Behind the orchestra.)"

I find this answer a little weird. Or at the very least a rationalization. It seems like you're saying people are ahead or behind because they're reading. So are they ALWAYS sight reading? Do they have some short-term memory problem like Dora, where no matter how many times they play they're still reading? Doesn't there come a point where they know the music, even by osmosis and without practicing?

October 3, 2016 at 06:02 PM · "And watching concertmaster's bow. Can't go wrong with that general advice either."

Do NOT try that in my orchestra. Our CM is generally out to lunch.

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