How to Conduct Basic Rhythms

 

What do Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt and Bernstein have in common? All were not only composers, they were also pianists and conductors. In our time many famous conductors started their careers as pianists, including André Previn, Daniel Barenboim and Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Why should pianists conduct?

There are some significant reasons why every piano student should learn to conduct basic meters, even if they never play in an ensemble led by a conductor.

The piano imitates the orchestra

The piano is arguably the most versatile instrument. Its range is deeper than the lowest notes of the contrabass and higher than the highest notes of the piccolo, making its range of notes wider than an entire orchestra. The piano imitates the orchestra: from soft strings to rumbling timpani to bright winds to a harsh brass section. It’s often a good idea to imagine the sound of an orchestra when playing solo piano music. This helps our creativity and also helps us to overcome some limitations inherent in the instrument.

To develop rhythmic feel

A metronome can give you the beat but not rhythmic feel. Today’s metronomes are mostly smartphone apps. Many of them offer very useful features that a purely mechanical metronome could never do, such as rhythmic subdivisions, cross-rhythms and complex meters. Mechanical metronomes have one major advantage over their digital counterparts, and this is their pendulum motion. In fact, this motion is quite similar to the movements in conducting. They can help us develop our rhythmic feel more so than a mere periodic digital click can.

What you need to know

Hopefully you’re now convinced that learning a bit about conducting will be useful to your work at the piano. You don’t need to immerse yourself in advanced conducting skills. Unless you’re an aspiring maestro, you really only need the basics.

Ictus

The first thing to know is the ictus. The ictus is simply the moment the beat occurs. You can show the ictus with your wrist.

Downbeat

The downbeat is always down. Simply move your arm downward to give the downbeat. The exact moment of the downbeat—the ictus—is given with a flick of the wrist.

Basic meters

With that by way of introduction, let’s start with the simplest meter, conducting in duple meter (also called duple time). Most often, this is 2/4 meter.

Duple meter: down–up

To conduct in 2, move your right arm down, curving slightly to the right at the end. Reverse the movement to get back to the starting point—this is beat 2:

Conducting duple meter
Conducting duple meter

Focus on fluid movements of the wrist. This helps players to anticipate the beat and prevents the rhythm from seeming mechanical.

Note that conducting in 2 can also mean compound meters, most commonly 6/8. This is a compound meter since the top number of the time signature is divisible by 3. This means that there are 2 beats per measure rather than 6 as you might assume at first glance. (That said, conductors do use a more complicated pattern to subdivide 6/8 meter if the tempo is slow.)

Triple meter: down–right–up

Triple meter has 3 beats to each measure. Most often it involves simple meters of 3/4 or sometimes 3/8. It can also be a compound meter such as 9/8.

To conduct in 3, move the right arm straight down. Snap the wrist to give the downbeat, then turn the hand and move it to the right for beat 2. Beat 3 is the upbeat, so it’s back up at the top where the hand started:

Conducting triple meter
Conducting triple meter

Conducting in 4: down–left–right–up

To conduct in 4, after giving the downbeat move the right hand to your left for beat 2, then right for beat 3 and to the top for beat 4:

Conducting in 4
Conducting in 4

Communicating emotion

Now that you know the basic meters, you can already start becoming more expressive in your conducting. Try setting a metronome to, say, 60 beats per minute.

How would you conduct a piece in triple meter that’s, say, angry and militant? Give it a try. Do you notice your arm and wrist movements? They’re probably angular, with a very precise ictus.

Now try conducting an imaginary piece, also in triple meter, that’s calm and soft. How would you conduct it? Do you make bigger or smaller arm movements? Are the beats as precisely defined, or are they soft around the edges?

Did you notice that we maintained a constant tempo while expressing entirely different emotions with our imaginary orchestra? This is the power of conducting, something you’d never be able to get from a mere metronome! Practice conducting the music you play, hearing it in your mind as you conduct, and you’ll be surprised by the improvement in your rhythmic feel.

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