How to Conduct an Orchestra

Question: Explain some of the basic motions that you use to indicate how people should play.

Alan Gilbert:\r\n The basic premise of conducting is that you have to give a beat before \r\nthe sound.  So if I want a sound to happen... say if we're counting one,\r\n two, three, four, boom... and something happens on the next "one," so \r\nif we're counting in four: one, two, three, four, one, two, three... If \r\nsomething happens on the next 'one,' then I would have to make a motion \r\nstarting on "four."  So I'll count... I go one, two, three, four, one.  \r\nSo I start at the gesture before.  Anything that happens, you have to \r\nindicate it, you have to start indicating it a beat before.  That's the \r\nbasic premise.  There are more subtleties that can come into play, but \r\nessentially you show things a beat before they happen.  So if something \r\nhappens on 'three' – one, two, three, four, one, two, three.  I alter my\r\n gesture on 'two' in order to show that something is gonna happen on the\r\n next 'three' or on 'four' I go one, two, three, four—I just give a \r\nlittle bit extra impetus on "four."

Then, the next level is the \r\nquality of sound.  If you want it to be a sharp decisive sound, then you\r\n give a more sharply defined, more decisive gesture.  So one, two, \r\nthree, four, one – you give more impetus.  Or if you want a softer sound\r\n one, two, three, four, one -you can give a more gentle sound.  Or if \r\nyou want to show that... you can use the left hand to show that you want\r\n more.  There's the time that's going on, but within the gesture, you \r\ncan alter also the quality of sound.  If the arm is very, very... if you\r\n fill it with intensity, the sound will tend to be more active and more \r\nrich.  And if you allow the arm to be lighter and weightless, that is \r\nalso reflected in the sound.

So those are the basic things... \r\njust showing the time.  Events have to be shown one beat before.  Then \r\nthe quality of sound on those events can be affected by the speed of the\r\n gesture, the intensity of the gesture, and also the texture, if you \r\nwill, of the body itself.

Recorded on June 18, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman

The conductor demonstrates some of the basic hand motions involved in his craft.