Cues in Conducting

February 22, 2010 at 05:40 PM ·

 As I've been working on reading scores and executing conducting patterns correctly, I've been thinking about what makes a good conductor, well, good.  
I've read (both on the discussion boards here and on other websites) that one of the key things to conducting well is giving good cues.  
From your perspective - as musicians - what is the best way to cue the different sections of an orchestra?  
How obvious should a cue be to the musicians, as well as the audience?  
Are there situations where a conductor shouldn't give cues to the orchestra? (I know that the Vienna Philharmonic finds it a bit offensive to receive cues from the conductor.)

Thank you in advance!  :-)

Replies (21)

February 23, 2010 at 02:51 AM ·

I'll bite... While I won't say this is the best, this is what I do... At the moment I have a middle school level string orchestra, and I use the whole shebang. I point at them, because they hardly notice unless it's a big motion. For my bass, I just look at him, because he pays attention. For my cello who's the newest player, I point, nod, and shout out "cellos!". :) In an actual concert I try to just nod and maybe a hand cue for the big ones.  I have a rehearsal with them tomorrow, and I'm going to try to do less for everything. They're learning the pieces really well right now, and I'm going to see what they can do themselves without the coddling.


February 23, 2010 at 03:05 AM ·

 Well it depends on what it takes to get the attention of the section.  For the brass, I would recommend an obscene gesture =D

February 23, 2010 at 04:19 AM ·

Well, I'm a fiddler.... we don't take hints, so it isn't worth the effort most of the time.

However, if you need, you can kick the chair out and we will wake up for our piece.

February 24, 2010 at 02:35 AM ·

It's an interesting question and of course depends on the level of the group you're conducting.

If you're in front of a good professional orchestra, the cues don't have to be major. For the most part the players are just looking for confirmation that they've counted the rests correctly so sometimes even just some eye contact will do.

Also, the most useful cues don't just tell us when to come in but also how to play our entry.

February 24, 2010 at 05:22 AM ·

Perhaps as you read the score, look at each part and ask what you'd want to see if you were playing it.  A useful cue for a string soloist will be different from what a wind section might need, not to mention a percussionist.

February 24, 2010 at 04:31 PM ·

The cue I find most helpful is eye contact and an upbeat breath.

February 24, 2010 at 05:09 PM ·

 What she said.

February 24, 2010 at 05:14 PM ·

In my experience of orchestra playing over the past 60 years, good/great conducting is a body language thing. Some people have it, some don't - and never will. Some can learn the motions and get by with what they learn, some can study under the same conditions and never become convincing.

37 years ago I participated (as a tutti violinist) in some of the orchestra sessions of Herbert Blomstedt's Conducting Master Class, and thus got to see that master at work really close up. He really is a wonderful conductor in every way. I also had the experience of playing for a few years under conductors who had been through that 2-week master class (up to two times). All learned the "motions," and some incorporated them into their natural communication skills. For others it sort of stuck out like a "sore thumb," but I'm pretty sure still made them better than they would have been without that tough training.

The most important thing is consistency. Whatever you do to cue a section or player, always do it just that way. A conductor can be mediocre in overall conducting technique, but if the players can count on consistency and a rock-solid leader in the concert(s) the battle is more than half won. An outstanding example in such venues is George Thomson ( ) who is also assoc. conductor of the Berkeley Symphony. I've seen him in action conducting the "lowest" level of orchestra workshops (pretty much beginner kids) and his bold gestures really brought it together. For inexperienced youth orchestras, a very big and bold approach is sometimes required. George is also a fine violinist, capable of an outstanding recital. I should also add that with more experienced players his conducting is much more subtle, but just as clear.

The most important thing you can teach young orchestra players is WHERE THE BEAT IS! Far, far too often they all have different ideas about that. And you have to be careful where you place the "beat" in your hand or stick work, and be sure to never go below your podium - or any player's stand top. Even if you place the beat at the bottom (where you should) if anything cuts that from a player's view, that's where they will place their beat.

Good luck.


February 24, 2010 at 06:11 PM ·

There are a lot of good points made here.  From my perspective, the most important thing is not that you cue me, but that you conduct the beats clearly.  I do not want to have to look up, as I sometimes have had to do, and wonder if I am seeing you conduct the second or fourth beat.  That said, when cuing, again, it is probably not so important how you do it so long as it is clear to the folks you are cuing and you are consistent.  Eye contact, pointing, a lean in their direction, any of this sort of thing will work so long as you do and do it clearly.  What precisely you do may need to be tailored to the level of the group.  Good luck. 

February 27, 2010 at 05:27 PM ·

The thing I find most important is predictability.  A cue almost always needs to be in the same tempo and character expected for the music that follows, such that if the conductor did not even give the next beat, the orchestra would still place it correctly.  If a conductor gives a cue in fortissimo when the music is marked piano, he will get tentative playing and confused looks.  Even worse, if he cues allegro, then conducts the next beat adagio, the players will rightly feel like they're playing cards with a cheater.

March 7, 2010 at 03:56 AM ·

These are all very interesting points, and are very helpful.  I'll definitely keep them in mind as I learn more about conducting.  Thanks a bunch!  :-)

March 7, 2010 at 12:23 PM ·

.... and even the professionals can get it TERRIBLY wrong at times.  I remember vividly one concert I attended whilst a student in London, where a rather well known British conductor gave a huge cue to the trumpet section: which looked blankly back at him shaking their heads and mouthing the word "no" - as they weren't due in for another couple of bars... 

The best conductor I had as a youngster was brilliant in that she did exactly the opposite of what one would expect a conductor to do with a group of kids.  Rather than do big obvious cues, she made all her cues very small and precise, because she told us that way, we'd get used to really watching the conductor when we needed to.  It worked too.  I've always admired conductors who can move the baton about 2 inches and produce the loudest, most perfectly together ffffz chord you could imagine.

The OP might find it very educating and useful to get some DVDs out the library of different conductors doing the same piece - say Brahms 1st symphony - follow along with the score and get a feel for how they communicate with their orchestras.  Anything by Carlos Kleiber is highly recommended...

March 7, 2010 at 05:13 PM ·

Having been on both sides of the podium, my suggestions for cues (for what they are worth) depends on whether you're in rehearsal or in concert. Rehearsals tend to be lively  where large gestures, shouts, screams of rage (or triumph) are the norm (except at the highest professional levels). My feeling about conducting is that if a conductor has done his job well in rehearsal, he ought to be able to leave the stage during concert without causing the collapse of the group.

In concert, subtle cues were the norm. Respectful. Professional. A good conductor will be going through the motions at points if you are well-rehearsed, and he should be scanning the orchestra constantly. If you are a player who has lost count, look at the conductor! He'll (or she'll) see it in your expression and you'll get your cue. For persistent problems, you can simply say to the section, "I'll cue you at three before B." (and then be sure to do it. :-)

I always paid the most attention to the color sections where players have the greatest number of bars of rest to count. This can be a problem in pieces where there are lots of repeats or the composer uses a lot of the same material in similar ways. I picked up a trick that served me well, which was to pre-cue a section. For example, if the basses have a skillion bars to count, and you sense that aura of despair settling over the section, two bars before their entrance, hold your left hand in front of your body and raise two fingers. But don't use your usual cue motions, head nods, etc. or the section will jump in. The extra bars permit the players time to refocus on their music, locate the entrance, and then look back to you for their normal cue.

March 8, 2010 at 02:12 AM ·

This may sound strange, but I think conducting is nothing.  You can take all kinds of conducting coursework, but the issue is really knowledge of a work and having a conception of what you want.  Then if you're talented, your body and your intuition will tell you what to do, depending on the circumstances.  What this really requires is experience, and not the kind you get in conducting classes. 

Sometimes people forget that universities are businesses, and the people who work in them have shortcomings like we all do, despite their temporary power over students.

March 8, 2010 at 05:23 AM ·

Robert, I chuckled reading that.  Last fall I played Adams's Shaker Loops for a conducting recital.  At some point in the concert I became aware that I was off by a bar.  I stared at his forehead to say, "Cue me or we're all dead!"  He was good -- he obliged.

I disagree a bit with Connie; even with great potential one cannot always let one's body and intuition dictate.  In my experience this is actually true quite regularly.  (Not unlike the violin: I have a terrible habit of hunching my shoulders when things get difficult, which doesn't help anything.)  That is why there are conducting classes, especially the better ones where they actually get in front of an ensemble, a scenario where the players are expected to tell the protege what he's doing wrong instead of sitting in terrified silence not wanting to risk the conductor's public humiliation.  Even practicing in front of a mirror can't completely give the inexperienced conductor that same perspective.  Perhaps what you mean is knowing how to look like the music, which is of course terribly important.

March 26, 2010 at 02:46 PM ·

I started playing with a community orchestra before I'd completed a full year of lessons/practice. Full-day practice, by the way, I was on a "mission."

Nine years later, I've played with four different orchestras and at least seven different conductors. My comments come from the experience of a rank beginner "concert violinist," (as I jokingly refer to myself--a violinist who plays concerts!). Anyhow, these are some distinctions I've noticed among all these conductors that I especially like:

1. Show the downbeats. Downbeats are important to amateur players; if you get lost, it's easier to find your way back if the conductor is showing you a down beat, rather than just waving his arms in the air.

2. Definitely cue introductions when the music warrants it. You'll know when there's hesitation in a part, and it takes several notes before the entire section is playing together. Help us as much as you can; there's plenty going on for beginner orchestral players.

"Watch the principal" is overdone, in my opinion. Watching the principal is just another thing to watch--and good luck if you're in the back row!

3. Someone please distribute bowings! Sometimes you're expected to figure out bowing by WATCHING THE PRINCIPAL. Give me a break. This is plain old laziness. Distribute those bowings!

4. Give a measure of tempo before starting. I'd never realized how important this has been till now. Our present conductor starts each piece with his hands in the air and right into the downbeat, take-off note. Very, very insteresting how it takes the orchestra several measures to be playing together. As you go from one tempo and genre to the other during a concert, beginners to the orchestra benefit from a bit of metronomic tempo DISCREET movements before starting. One of the best conductors I've played with used to call this measure(s) "a free one." EVERYONE had the tempo in his head before we started.

Having said all this, there is no greater fun than making harmony with other instruments.

March 26, 2010 at 02:52 PM ·

After I went on and on in my post, Catherine, I realize I didn't answer your question about HOW to give the cue. I'm happy with a simple look in the direction of the section.

I'm waiting, sometimes many measures of rests, as you know, and I'm looking at the conductor for an entrance. Just a simple look and a nod on the opening beat is a great validation--ahhhh, I was counting right!


March 26, 2010 at 03:18 PM ·

One thing that is important to remember about amateurs is that many of them have their eyes glued to the music at certain times because of the difficulty.  Thus, they will be looking at the conductor, at most, sporadically and using their peripheral vision.  This argues in favor of clear and fairly significant movements by the conductor during these periods.

March 26, 2010 at 06:15 PM ·

  • ". Give a measure of tempo before starting. I'd never realized how important this has been till now. Our present conductor starts each piece with his hands in the air and right into the downbeat, take-off note. Very, very insteresting how it takes the orchestra several measures to be playing together. As you go from one tempo and genre to the other during a concert, beginners to the orchestra benefit from a bit of metronomic tempo DISCREET movements before starting. One of the best conductors I've played with used to call this measure(s) "a free one." EVERYONE had the tempo in his head before we started."


Isaac Stern wrote about this in his book.  He, a good medium-famous conductor and Fritz Reiner were in a car together and the question came up about a particular beginning in a classical symphony.  There was an upbeat and the question was how to get the tempo right as well as being together on first beat (velocity as well as location).  One option was maybe doing a full bar in advance but the conductor was worried about it looking wrong.  Reiner just said "Start on the upbeat."  

Naturally the question came up "What do you do if they get the tempo wrong?"  To which Reiner said "Fire them."

March 27, 2010 at 12:34 PM ·

Unfortunately, there are conductors with Fritz Reiner's attitude.

At the first rehearsal of new music, the Conductor conducted at pretty near concert speed. It was a fast Beethoven, a disaster.

At the break, I asked Conductor (actually  a temporary conductor of this orchestra, but still, he holds a doctorate in the field) why conductors don't treat their "instrument"--the orchestra--the way we're taught to build skill on OUR instruments by playing slowly at first. 

His response, "Come better prepared."

But the music was just distributed that night. He demonstrated jerkdom or maybe humor that I missed.

Anyhow, another conductor I experienced did the same thing, except he explained that he wanted everyone to know how the piece will (eventually) be played. Then he'd slow down appropriately and build the speed gradually. If you NEVER get to hear how all the parts fit together correctly (at slower speeds) progress is slow. 

This same very impressive conductor could detect a single incorrect note or rhythm pattern from any part of the orchestra. How'd he do that?? The fact that he could never tell you where he parked his car made him human.

By the way, I like movement from the conductor. I sit so that I can see every arm movement just slightly above my music stand without actually looking away from the music.It took awhile for me to figure out how to place chair and stand to make use of perpheral vision. It's like having a giant metronome sitting on the music stand.

Who's the NY Philharmonic conductor who conducts with his fingers? Give me a break! I'm told that these professionals don't need a conductor anyhow. As for me, I probably couldn't see his fingers from a distance!!

March 27, 2010 at 06:06 PM ·

Be sure to breathe before you give a cue. It's very hard to feel the flow of the music if the beat or cue comes out of nowhere. We shouldn't prevent ourselves from breathing as violinists either- the breathing will likely encourage an appropriate preparatory movement in the body and encourage everyone in the orchestra to breath together with you and feel the upcoming entrance.

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