As a middle school band teacher, my beginning band students are thrown right into the hustle and bustle of learning to play their instruments from day one. We work on breathing, posture, playing position, tone quality, keeping a steady beat, and a long list of musical skills that are needed in order to be able to play their instrument. By the time they begin their large ensemble experience, many of the students are so overwhelmed with the myriad of other musical skills they are developing, that they fail to see what is happening on the podium, and just see a teacher frantically waving their arms with a stick, yelling out measure numbers as they play.
Unfortunately, since students often are not accustomed to the music teacher conducting, and are used to them only beating time by snapping, tapping a foot, or tapping the music stand with a baton- we don’t expose young students to the musical phrasing that can be expressed through conducting; instead they just see us as keepers of the time.
I try to spend a little bit of time at the beginning of the school year working with students on conducting. Yes, we have a million other things to learn, but sensitizing students to conducting gestures early on will help them make better musical interpretations in the future.
Even before we talk about beat patterns, I have students explore the space that we as conductors use. I have them pretend that they have a large band or orchestra in front of them, and that the percussionist in the very back row needs to see every gesture they make. This encourages them to use the space that is above their waists, as everything below their waists will be difficult to see from the back of the room. It might also encourage them to make really large gestures; that’s okay at the beginning, at least they’re excited! As time progresses, you’ll be able to teach them that we can conduct as small as the face of a postage stamp and still provide musical meaning.
We can refine their base plane by instructing them to place their arms parallel to the floor, with their shoulders relaxed, and elbows a few inches from their bodies. This is the horizontal plane that we use when we are at rest, and the line that the beats touch. I don’t explain the term ictus at this point- we don’t want paralysis by analysis 🙂
I then teach a basic 4/4 beat pattern. I don’t spend time refining the beat pattern with the students. At the middle school level, getting all students to understand the basic “down, left, right, up” structure is an accomplishment! Focusing unnecessarily on teaching multiple beat patterns will only distract students at this point, especially since our goal is to help instill sensitivity with our students.
After we learn the 4/4 beat pattern, I ask students how we start a piece of music. If I get blank looks, I ask how we start a piece of music if we are playing our instruments. At this point, I usually get the response, “with a breath.” Since beginning band students are so accustomed to taking a breath one beat before we play, this serves as a great segue to introducing a preparatory beat in our conducting.
Continue to How To Conduct Music: A Primer For Beginners, Part II where we explore the preparatory beat, the release, and summarize the benefits of teaching conducting to young instrumental students.
4/4 Beat Pattern. [Online image] http//bp0.blogger.com/_9etVnS4R1As/SGU8l_beGAI/AAAAAAAAG_c/VZImWKGTtOI/s400/1632Conducting-44time.svg.png. Available , May 4, 2011.
Student Conducting. [Online image] http//ithaca.edu/depts/img/LCMS2010041609492960816_photo.jpg. Available, May 4, 2011.