How to Conduct an Orchestra

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


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

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

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

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

Recorded on June 18, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman