Tips for conducting a high school orchestra?

March 11, 2018, 7:58 PM · I'm a senior at a New York High school, and of the two orchestras, I'll be the conductor of the advanced group for a piece I've been adamant of.

I have sat in countless festivals and select student orchestras such as SCMEA LISFA NYSCAME and beyond, so I know the basic conducting patterns and then some: such as exaggerating. (age is 16, years playing is 12)

Does anyone have tips for rehearsal? The piece is Mariah Carey's All I want for Christmas. Rehearsal will be done entirely by me, as my teacher has allowed me due to my knowledge/experience.

I have plans to buy a baton, and have constructed the seating arrangement

All tips and suggestions ranging from conducting movements to warm-up exercises welcome!


Replies (14)

March 11, 2018, 8:59 PM · Conducting is no less a learned skill than playing an instrument; I strongly suggest that you take some conducting lessons in advance of this experience. If your high school director isn't available to teach you, perhaps your youth orchestra conductor would give you some lessons.
Edited: March 11, 2018, 10:10 PM · Hi there!

There is a lot to conducting. The first thing you need are a mirror and a baton or baton like object.

Knowing the basic conducting pattern as a player and knowing the basic conducting patterns as a conductor are two different things.

Let's start with your stance:

Make sure you are not wound like a spring. Bring your conducting hand out in front of you and make sure your elbow is neither tucked in tight or flared too far out. Think bowing. For your off hand, unless you are using it to cue someone, turn a page, or for emphasis it should be tucked in at your belly level ready to do it's job when needed.

Feet should be shoulder width apart and back straight. Try not to move around too much as any extra movement can be distracting - I was once in a conducting seminar with someone who would bounce along with the beat and sometimes even dance. You can get away with that at higher levels but at this point the beat needs to be clear and uninterrupted. You want to look at the ensemble as much as possible, but not stare at any one section or player for too long lest they think they're in trouble. Try not to bury yourself in the music - you have lots of time to prepare and even memorize the piece from the conductor view point. The score should just be there incase you get lost.

The first, most important thing is the downbeat and every other beat. This is called the anacrusis - each beat needs to be marked by some sort of motion. a bounce, a tap, etc. This is how your performers know where the beat is - if you are just wagging circles in 4/4 it doesn't matter how skilled you are or they are - they won't be with you and you won't be with them. They need to know where in the gesture the beat is and that's a tricky skill to learn.

Next, make sure your pattern is even. I don't know the piece, but it's a popsong and probably in 4/4. Make sure your pattern is clear and follows the 'down, in, out, up' motion. I use in and out instead of left and right incase you conduct left handed - I do and know a couple other people who do as well. Some people will tell you this isn't okay - but it is okay and don't let tradition trump comfort. The majority of performers won't even notice unless you tell them, less so a ensemble of grade 12's who are likely looking more at the score or elsewhere than you.This increases the necessary of a clear beat. If you can get only one thing for this perfect it is needing a clear beat.

The next thing to do in making you pattern solid is to make sure you are hitting the same spots each time you beat a note. The down, in, and out portions of the beat should be on the same plane (imagine you are bumping into a bench on each of those beats) and the upbeat should be about the same distance each time. It's important you don't rush to each beat and that your pattern isn't too large. Draw a mental box and stay inside it. Increasing and decreasing the size of the pattern can be ways to show increases or decreases in volume or drama, but also change the distance between point A and point B and can mess with your counting and either cause you to speed up or slow down. Make sure you can conduct the entire piece with a metronome and consistently before adding that in.

Once you can do this start adding in page turns and cues. I can't really explain how to do cues through text - there are two main ways. You can give a general cue by just brining your off hand in on the beat, or you can give a more directed and useful cue but gesturing on the beat. Make sure you make eye contact with the section you're cuing to ensure they are with you. The trick here is not to do this too soon as you will get them worried they are in the wrong place in their counting. One measure in advance is good, maybe more for children.

Starting and stopping an ensemble.

Professional ensembles can start or stop at the drop of a hat. With a younger ensemble I recommend giving either a full bar of your beat before they come in to allow them to establish tempo or start paying attention, or at the least the 3 and 4. To stop them, don't just stop conducting. There needs to be some sort of gesture - I use my off hand and make a closing motion most of the time coinciding with the stop of my baton.

Other challenges, such as tempo changes, fermata's, etc, are additional challenges.

For the seating arrangement I would recommend you stick with a standard layout - anything else will work against you as a conductor. I recently saw the OSM perform in Montreal and they had switched their Celli and Viola sections. If I was to walk up in front of that orchestra to conduct I would likely cue the wrong section at least once unless I had worked with that set up prior to that.

For conducting the rehearsal, try not to call your weak sections out in public. Yes, they messed up, and they're going to keep messing up until they practice more. Humiliation won't make them work better. Even worse, do not call out individuals in public. Think in terms of sections not people as far as the ensemble is concerned, and stick to the rule of praise in public punish in private. The way you conduct rehearsals for a young group or less experienced group requires much more sensitivity than for older more experienced musicians.

Plan your rehearsals in advance and let people know what to prepare for that session. Measure numbers and rehearsal letters. This way both you and the performer can plan around what needs the most work, and you can heard them towards working on trouble sections.

There is so much more to this but I am at work at the moment and can't cover everything. This is an exciting experience for you and I hope you rock it. The first rehearsal will be a disaster, don't let it discourage you.

I hope other people chime in!

Just remember conducting is all about body language and is an entirely different language than anything else in music. It's also important to remember that conducting a less experienced group is -harder- than a more experienced one. They need more attention to the beat and cues than more advanced players do, and you need to conduct for the group you're in front of and not the group you wish you had.


Edited: March 11, 2018, 10:29 PM · Some basics I always hand off to my student conductors:

1. Whenever anything goes wrong, it's your fault.
2. Clarity of your intentions is paramount.
3. Less is more.

March 12, 2018, 7:15 AM · I've sat in front of conductors since 1948 and agree 100% with Gene Wie! Michael's remarks also are very good and should be studied, understood and followed.

Some wonderful musicians become terrible conductors because they do not follow Gene's 3rd rule. Any excess and meaningless motion by the conductor is likely to be interpreted by someone in the "band." Lack of control of such extraneous conductor motions seems to become even worse in performance. Be sure to keep your hands high enough that every player can see your beat. Many conductors are former pianists (or other soloists) who never had to follow a conductor and seem to have no idea or instinct for how this body-language communication works.

The best conductor I have ever sat before was Herbert Blomstedt whose conducting was a marvelous communication - sending every interpretive and rhythmic message and nothing more or less. He was not a "showboater." This was in the orchestra for one of the 2-week conductor seminars he gave in the summer before he took over the podium of the San Francisco Symphony. His conducting students in that seminar were mainly college and university conductors and by and large their techniques were "lacking" - to state it kindly!

March 12, 2018, 8:11 AM · Don't over-conduct. Many conductors think they need big motions when they really don't.
March 12, 2018, 9:14 AM · Don't get upset. Many conductors do that.
Edited: March 12, 2018, 10:18 AM · Something more:

1. One of the best orchestra conductors I have sat in front of never used a baton - and he was thus able to use individual fingers to great advantage.

2. Along with that baton thing - if you use a white baton, do not wear a white jacket!

3. And one more, if you use a baton be sure your hand AND your baton beat the beat at the same time. I've seen some who do a "wrist break" thing that results in the baton tip and the hand stopping at different times. Don't do that.

4. And, finally, Watching some Jr. High orchestra concerts where the students apparently had never been told "where the beat is" and seem to follow it at different times" some when it starts down, some when it is half-way down, and some when it is actually at the "beat." You know what that sounds like! Yet when playing in an orchestra of some of these same students with a really good conductor - everyone was on the beat. Make sure your players know where your beat is and that they can all see it. Things actually work best if the beat is always in or close to the same horizontal plain.

Edited: March 12, 2018, 3:08 PM · One important aspect of a conductor's skill is that he should make it his business to understand of the workings of every type of instrument in the orchestra, and what problems they are likely to run into. It isn't necessary for the conductor to be able to play every instrument (!), although competence in at least one is useful. A conductor should be prepared if necessary to discuss technical problems of an instrument with which he is not familiar with the principal of that instrument section.

The conductor's best friend in the orchestra should be the CM. A good rapport between the two will pay dividends. An example of this is in one of my orchestras, the conductor of which is a young professional horn player and pianist, but not a string player, who at rehearsals makes every effort to discuss string-playing problems with the CM, a semi-retired pro, and to learn from the CM's life-long experience. Advice from that CM is always forthcoming, I am happy to say.

March 12, 2018, 8:10 PM · I have no experience in conducting as a high schooler so I cannot comment. But I do have a sarcastic comment:

Dear senior. Carefully remember that we're all high schoolers and since another high schooler is conducting, there might be a freshman or sophomore rebellion. (If they're good enough)

(Professionals, don't pay attention to me)

March 12, 2018, 8:42 PM · "One of the best orchestra conductors I have sat in front of never used a baton - and he was thus able to use individual fingers to great advantage."

Especially your third finger for the viola section. LOL

My other suggestion is that you grow your hair fairly long so that it can flop around like Gustavo Dudamel or Seiji Ozawa.

March 13, 2018, 5:12 AM · @ Paul Deck OOOOOOOFF you sound like my violin advisor
Edited: March 13, 2018, 4:09 PM · I am not sure I understood Michael McGrath's comment about "anacrusis". But I am sure everyone else did. I found his other comments very inightful.

I have a lot of conducting experience, especially at high school level, and I have used a baton only once or twice (in conducting exams!!).

The level plane in sight of everyone mentioned above is a hot stove top, which your finger barely touches: don't sit (or pause) at the bottom of your pattern.

Use your eyes as well as your ears: look directly into the eyes of your players as you cue them, and quickly move on. You can send a lot of "control" into the orchestra with your eyes.

Ask yourself if you are beating time to the orchestra, or if you are leading them. If you are beating time, they will rarely need you (well, inexperienced student orchestras might, but, soon enough, they won't need you to beat time, especially in a pop song). Seek advice from a conducting mentor on how to grow from one role to the other.

You are not learning to fly: use one hand (Michael gave good advice on this).

As quickly as you can, go to work on how the orchestra plays the details, the articulations and dynamics. That is, they will soon play your piece in time, with accurate rhythms, (and you won't be changing tempo in that piece, I suspect). Great tuning adds sparkle (but you actually don't have a lot of control over that in your situation), but a lot of sparkle will come from the dynamics and articulation.

Never get grumpy with anyone. I have played under the direction of many conductors, and "grumpy" never works.

Read through Michael's comments again, and again. Much of what he wrote resonates with me. I suspect he has "been there, done that".

Edited: March 13, 2018, 6:18 PM · Every Tuesday and Thursday Graeme! Fun times!

When I refer to the anacrusis I refer to the specific point in the gesture that lines up with the actual beat. I like to give just the tiniest flick or bounce at this point when it isn't obvious - for example during a large legato pattern.

I just got in from a concert where the conductor (who was conducting Telemann's Don Quixote) used his hands and no baton. The amount of information he conveyed to the orchestra was amazing and I sincerely wished I had of chosen seats to see a better view of that opposed to the soloists for Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante later in the program. I'm sure there was a better middle ground than my last minute selection.

March 13, 2018, 6:41 PM · Thankyou all very much. There are too many of you here to thank individually!

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