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Articles In Music Education

                               Musical Expression and Shaping Phrases


Once a conductor understands how to conduct holds on specific notes, the same concept may be used when shaping a phrase or conducting a rubato section.  According to H. A. VanderCook, all notes have different values:

  • Length value

  • Rhythm value

  • Volume or dynamic value

  • Style Value

  • Tempo Value

  • Intensity Value

  • Pitch value

  • Note Placement in a Phrase Value


The term “pulling “ or shaping” a phrase is used many times to describe the action of a conductor who does not merely beat time, but makes the music come to life with emotion and expression.  It is essential that a conductor conceptualize what is desired with every movement of the baton.  Understanding the different values of the notes will determine what gestures will be conveyed to the performers.


Here are some general rules of expression:

  • When the notes go higher in the scale or melodic line, there should be a natural crescendo.

  • When notes go lower in the scale or melodic line, a diminuendo should occur.

  • When singing or playing long note values, the long notes are generally played louder than the shorter notes (long note strong note, short note softer note).


Baton motions must convey what is happening musically.

  • A smooth flowing baton indicates legato.

  • Separated or staccato figures must be indicated by a slight stopping of the baton. Staccato figures should be described as lightly and detached.

  • Longer notes, or notes that need to be brought out because of the importance in the musical motif, must be indicated by a deliberate motion of the baton.


A slight stopping of the baton and the left hand can indicate phrases.  The eyes can help in catching the attention of the players, and a slight chin movement may also be used.  Abrupt dramatic pauses (grand pauses) require that the stopping gesture be more emphatic.  Holding the hands still for a longer time will indicate the silent pause. (Turning the palms helps in picturing such pauses: dropping the chin is also useful.)

                                                                                     Pit falls of Conductors During Rehearsals


From time to time, we have all found ourselves in situations that cause rehearsals to be less than productive.  It is important to first recognize that these problems exist and can develop into larger problems and secondly, to guard against any of these faults becoming habits.  Habits are formed by continuous repetition and are hard to break.  If you find yourself only beating time and not feeling the musical phrase, you are not taking music seriously.  Never settle for mediocrity.  Any musical phrase worth conducting is worth conducting musically and with conviction.  According to Webster,  “A habit is a continual, often involuntary or unconscious, inclination to perform an activity acquired through frequent repetition, established disposition of the mind or character.”


Guidelines for Rehearsals


  • Don’t talk too much - Conduct.  Many times directors spend too much time talking.  A common mistake is to be in the starting position with arms and baton up then start talking at length.  Any time the conductor has his or her hands in the directing position a downbeat is in order.  To talk at length is rude and disrespectful to the ensemble.  Students lose focus if there is too much talking and not enough playing.  Also, the more you talk in a rehearsal the less time the instrument is on the musicians’ faces.  Young musicians need to play as much as possible in order to strengthen embouchures.  All rehearsals should build musicality and endurance of the embouchure and abdominal muscles.


  • Always be prepared for rehearsal.  All rehearsals must have a systematic plan.  The conductor must never try to learn the music during rehearsal.


  • Check the score and parts for possible misprints or errors (there are many errors in printed music).  Players should be encouraged to question situations that do not sound right.


  • Never start a rehearsal late!  This can develop into many problems and you are wasting valuable rehearsal time.

    • Musicians delay getting ready because it is a known fact that rehearsal always start late so they are not fully prepared to play when you step on the podium.

    • Students don’t focus until 10 minutes into the rehearsal.

    • Poor warm-up and perhaps no warm-up due to time constraints

    • A proper warm-up is very effective.  Professional musicians prefer to play warm-ups they have created that best suit their needs.  I never would insult professional musicians with a structured warm-up. Elementary through college musicians need supervised warm-ups to help them develop proper fundamental techniques.


  • Warm-ups are important.  They:

  • Warm-up the brain, and

  • Warm-up the instrument and embouchure


  • Don’t start conducting without warning.  Poor rhythm of the downbeat causes several miss-starts, which wastes valuable rehearsal time.


  • Musicians are not mind readers.  Professional musicians understand the language of conducting.  Younger musicians must be taught what is happening on the podium.  Taking time to explain the language of conducting can save time in rehearsal.  Show younger students what you are asking for musically with your gestures and have the students conduct the passage along with you.  Seeing is one thing, doing is another.  We are not trying to train students to be conductors yet we want them to follow our desires.


  • Speak more slowly. Don’t move from one point to another too quickly.


  • Be specific as to the section for which corrections are needed.


  • Give clear instructions. After stopping, don’t mumble indefinite or confused directions as to where to resume.


  • Don’t change your mind when giving rehearsal numbers or letters.  Students become confused as to where to start.


  • Don’t stop without good reason.  Nothing is really corrected but time is wasted.


  • Be able to diagnose problems quickly and accurately: keeps repeating the passage hoping the problem will correct itself.


  • Don’t work too long on one particular passage (law of diminishing returns).


  • Don’t waste time rehearsing complete passages when rehearsing spots would save time. 


  • Be on the lookout for students that need help.


  • Never take for granted that students know more than they really do.


  • Have a system of breaking down problems and drilling each factor, then putting them together for a good result.


  • Don’t let players get set into bad habits or faults then “holler” at them (be consistent in correcting errors and faults).


  • Make sure all folders are complete; don’t let some players sit idle.


  • Make effective use of technology to clarify problems and teach concepts.


  • Have a thorough understanding of the fundamentals.  There is not enough carry over of fundamentals principles of musicianship.  What is taught in the playing of a specific piece is not carried into the preparation of another piece.


  • Don’t over-drill the ensemble.  The students go stale on the piece leaving little chance for spontaneity at the concert.


  • Music is too difficult.  Choose music that is slightly challenging so students will learn and still perform well.


  • Number the measures.  When rehearsing contest music, every measure should be numbered on each player’s part to avoid wasting time counting “so many measures before letter”.  Too much chance of players starting at different places, causing confusion and irritation between the director and the players.


  • Work harder on musical discipline.  You must understand the difference between behavior discipline and musical discipline.


  • Don’t waste time fixing an instrument during rehearsal, losing players’ focus and attention.


  • Differentiate between notes and rests.  Make sufficient distinction in your conducting between playing beats and non-playing beats.


  • Director’s baton arm is too low.  Director’s beats are sometimes below or behind the music stand or below the players’ line of vision.


  • Director’s baton arm is too high - above the players’ line of vision.   The podium may be too high.  Tall directors may not need a podium, yet respect of the podium must be adhered to.


  • Director’s music stand is too low.  Director is looking down and players cannot see his/her eyes (the eyes must be used to catch attention of players who are being coached or cued).


  • Check player’s music stand height and placement.  Players look down or in the wrong direction and cannot see the baton so fail to play as the baton indicates.   Students should be taught to adjust height and position of the music stand so they can see the director’s eyes, facial expression and baton motions, as well as the music.


  • H.E. Nutt’s advice: “Get the music in your head and your head out of the music.”


  • Excerpts are important.  Identify particular passages that are challenging to students and refer to them as excerpts to be mastered so the piece can be performed with perfection.  These excerpts must be memorized so players can watch the conductor for a more musical result.


Contest and Concert Etiquette


Tuning on stage: When the ensemble is in place, prior to the conductor entering the stage, have the oboe or 1st clarinet play a tuning note (for Band woodwinds first then brass followed by everyone.   For Orchestras first strings, second woodwinds, followed by the brass then everyone. It recommends not exposing individual performers.  The performing ensemble is there to perform not warm up on stage.  The center of pitch is what it is and nothing will change on the stage at the last minute.


Playing a scale on stage:  Judges are present at the time ready to go.  Why exposes weakness before the performances even starts


Playing a short Chorale:  This is not necessary!  If it is short ok. Just don’t allow the time of the performance to be jeopardized


Recognition of soloist:  This is a must


Announcing:  Try to have either the conductor or an announcer introducing each

Selection.  Very classy presentation also adds flair and dignity to the atmosphere of the concert.


Relating to the Audience:  At Concerts at home it is important to establish a report with the audience


Importance of timetable and courtesy to others: Obey the rule s of the contest. Be considerate of other performing ensembles and the contest officials keeping the event on time


Prep and ready to go: Always keep in mind that once the ensemble is at the festival on the stage all the work is accomplished and not much will change in a warm up.  Just DO IT!

                   Conducting Etiquette


On all levels there is a standard of Etiquette that is world wide concerning the respect of the podium by the musicians and the report of the conductor with the musicians.  Younger students must be taught this as a fundamental expectation.  Some of the major pit falls that take place in rehearsals are the result of not understanding the proper etiquette.  It is the conductor that is responsible for creating an atmosphere of respect.  My mentor H.E. Nutt would often say, “Discipline problems in rehearsal are many times caused by the director.”  The following are examples of do’s and don’ts in rehearsals.  First, I would like to discuss ways in which poor conducting etiquette reflects rehearsal techniques.


  • The motions of the conductor must be clear and exact.  A conductor must be responsible for every movement of the baton.

The rehearsal of any group of musicians will be more effective if the conductor spends less time talking and more time indicating his/her desires through proper conducting movements and techniques.


  • Study and practice to develop an effective routine for getting a good rhythm before the downbeat.  Always give TWO Preparatory beats before playing or singing begins.  Touch the podium stand with the tip of the baton looking directly at the ensemble.  Raise your arms to the starting position.  Slightly hold this position long enough for the ensemble to form an embouchure.  Then make TWO preparatory beats in good rhythm indicating tempo, volume and style.  The ensemble should take a breath and start the sound of the first note immediately without holding the air.  Timing is everything.


  • Rhythm is indicated by the direction of the baton motions.  This will vary as a result of the desired conducting pattern that the director has chosen.  There are many different opinions as to how beat patterns must be conducted.  This, in many cases, is the fundamental choice of the director. Clarification of tempo, volume and style are:

    • Tempo is indicated by the speed of the baton motions. The movement of the preparatory beat is determined by the tempo. For fast passages use the tip of the baton.  For slower tempos use more forearm motion.

    • Volume is indicated by the amount of space covered by the baton motions.  Louder passages involve more forearm and body motion.  It is important to remember that in fast, loud passages do not use the forearm:  this causes the tempo to lag.  There is a tendency for a conductor to wear down if the tempo is fast and too much energy is exerted by a vigorous amount of arm use.

    • Style is indicated by the manner in which the baton moves or covers the space in the duration of the beat pattern.  A smooth, flowing pattern for legato and a separated pattern with marcato should be used.


  • For younger students, insist that all eyes must be on the conductor.  Teach the importance of short-term memorization of the first measure.


  • Be sure you know at all times exactly where each beat begins and ends and that you indicate this with the baton.



  • It is essential that an ensemble understand that baton movement means the sound continues and if the baton stops during rehearsal, everyone stops playing. A great deal of time can be wasted during rehearsal if the musicians don’t stop when the conductor stops.  There is no need for a director to say STOP.


  • Any time the baton stops for a cut off or a grand pause the conductor must consider what is next, as well as the position of the hand and baton in anticipation of the next entrance.  It is important to think through how to execute a clear and concise entrance when the piece continues without losing the feeling of good rhythm.


  • The word ictus is defined as the definite point of placement of the beat done with a slight touch of the wrist (the floating hold is an exception).  The placement of the ictus of the first beat in any measure is important, especially when indicating a meter or rhythmic change.


  • In order to insure a good rhythm of release, always make two preparatory gestures leading rhythmically to the exact point of release. In all meters and rhythmic figures, the last beat in a measure or piece of music must always be on a downbeat.


  • For pick-ups there is always a discussion among conductors how to address notes that are less than one full beat.


  • Make holds on the last part of the beat of a note.  Always keep the baton moving on all holds.  First indicate the ictus of the beat, and then move the baton in the direction of the next beat.  The note will be sustained as the baton moves to the next beat.  Never hold with an upward motion of the baton.  Upward motion is limited in the amount of space the baton can travel.  Always start at the side and bring the baton inward or outward, then as the indication to proceed is approached, the baton will move slightly towards the upward motion, allowing the baton to be in position to move downward for the beginning of the next note after the hold.


  • Always prepare for a long hold.  Allow enough space for the baton to travel and keep moving.  Never find yourself in a position to cut the length of a hold short because of not having enough space to keep the baton moving.

  • Holds are made ahead of the regular beat on which a hold is indicated by shifting the point of the ictus to allow space for the length of the hold.

  • Before the note that is be held, anticipate what is to come and shift the point of the ictus in order to allow space for the length of the hold, which allows for the regular rhythmic beat that follows to be immediate and smooth.   Always indicate at the beginning of a hold the probable length of the hold so players will know how to prepare for breath conservation.   Also, always make it clear to the players whether you are stopping after the hold or going right ahead.

  • Practice all holds in three styles of cut-off: Complete cut-off, Semi-pause, or continuous or floating.  Floating holds require no ictus on the second beat that makes up the extended length value of the note.  Make a definite attack for the first beat and then move smoothly (float) into the second beat without an ictus.

  • Use the left hand to assist on all holds. The use of the left hand is important because it will aid in making the indication of the lengthening the note clear, as well as indicate the point at which the hold is finished and the next beat is to be indicated.


  • Study and practice using the left hand to assist when indication indicating volume, style, and balance.  Cultivate a flexible, expressive left hand.  Study and practice the use of the left hand alone.

    • Practice mirroring your hands in the conducting patterns, then practice conducting with the left hand alone.

    • To gain independence, practice conducting the standard beat pattern with the right hand and the opposite direction with the left hand.

    • While conducting the beat pattern with the right hand, independently raise or lower the left hand to indicate an increase or decrease in volume. 

    • Practice indicating cues, dynamics, articulations, phrasing, entrances, and releases with the left hand while maintaining a standard beat pattern in different meters.

  • Make no superfluous motions or beats.  These extra movements confuse and many time cause a conductor to get lost as to exactly where the rhythm is in order to stay in control.  Your first responsibility in making music is not to overdue your movements, yet don’t be passive in what you are asking for musically.  Don’t jump around on the podium and make gestures that are distracting to the audience.  There may be people in the audience who could be offended by your actions, if they are over done.  Yet, if the music is exciting and there is a true feeling of strong emotion, it is perfectly acceptable to get a little wild at times.  This builds rapport with the audience.  It is a great compliment to have audience members come up to you after a concert and comment on how much they felt that you really enjoyed making music, and that you got so much out of the musicians.

  • Make a difference between a temporary stop (any place in the music) and the final stop at the end of a piece.

  • When coming to the end of a composition, the last note must always be a cut-off /ALL CUT-OFFS ARE DOWN BEATS.   A feeling of finale must be understood and exact.

  • Concert performance etiquette:  Professionalism is essential, and receiving the proper acknowledgement at the end of a performance is important.  Showing appreciation to the performers and audience is essential.   The future support of you as a conductor could very well be perceived or misperceived by how you acknowledge the performers and audience.  Charisma on and off of the podium is essential.


  • First, bow your head to the performers and acknowledge their cooperation and good work on the piece performed.

  • Step off the podium and bow to the audience (on behalf of the performing group).  Then gesture with an arm movement acknowledgement of the performers and jester for the featured soloist to stand for recognition.


  • Button up that coat! Nothing is more annoying than a director conducting with his or her coat unbuttoned and flailing in the air, detracting from the performance.  This pertains particularly to short tuxedo jackets or short coats.  Long tuxedo jackets usually don’t pose a problem.  If you are ever in doubt, have a friend, colleague or spouse evaluate how you look while conducting.

  • In closing, never settle for mediocrity.  Any musical phrase worth conducting is worth conducting musically and with conviction.

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