We’ve all seen signals passed between managers, coaches, and players in baseball: those cryptic hand gestures meant to convey hidden messages, perhaps to base runners without alerting the defense as to what’s about to happen. In conducting, we also have hidden signals, built into our beat patterns, which send subtle messages to every member of the ensemble. If we strive to be more than “semiconductors,” we need to be aware of these.
I recently played a performance under a slew of different conductors, and it hit me that, while there is general agreement on beat patterns for meters up to 4/4, we go all over the map with anything higher. In the film music environment, these more exotic meters are useful in shoehorning a musical phrase to fit some visual hit or moment, but they also have a side-benefit to players awaiting an entrance. Anyone with long stretches of rests to count welcomes the occasional 2/4, 3/4, 5/4 or 6/4 bar, as its different conducting pattern acts as a visual landmark (along with well-organized multimeasure rest breaks, double bars, cues, etc.) for the counting going on in one’s head.
Each musician’s constant and accurate awareness of his place in the music is fundamental to good, confident sightreading. While the beat patterns play an obvious role in syncing those actually playing at any moment, their constant and visceral reinforcement of the multimeasure rest “road map” for those preparing to enter can be even more important. Playing together is important, but one false entrance can affect your whole session, and perhaps a player’s career.
With that foundation, let’s take a brief look at how this works, bearing in mind that most of this is happening in the players’ peripheral vision. When you conduct one beat to the bar, such as in a bright waltz, your downbeat is so immediately blended with the next preparatory upbeat that it instantly communicates there is no beat two, giving the message of, “Hey, we’re in 1 here.” When conducting in two, your downbeat goes down and to the right (like a reverse “J,”) preparing for an immediate upbeat on two. Even to the player completely fixated on his music, it’s immediately clear on the downbeat that you are in two, as no other meter starts out with this motion. If he has an entrance on the next measure, or something else tricky related to this measure, this immediate reinforcement is most welcome. When you beat three (down, right, up,) the meter becomes obvious by beat two, as it goes out to the right, not left. Beating four is the standard against which the other variants are differentiated.
When you go into five or higher, in my player’s experience, it suddenly becomes every man for himself. Most conductors pay very little attention to these, and feel content as long as they have beaten something between the first and last beats of such measures. Building on the factors above, when you beat five, and with no other consideration taking precedence (such as an unusual phrasing) you should want it to be completely distinguishable from the more common patterns above. Given that, which pattern most quickly announces that you are beating five and not four, three, two, or one? Going down, left, further left, right, and up signals by beat three that you are in five. Beating down, left, right, further right, and up doesn’t distinguish itself until beat four. Similarly, beating six as down, left, further left, right, further right, and center-up sets the meter apart from the usual patterns by beat five. It also has the advantage of splitting the bar up into two coequal entities which are easier to process visually. If you are merely using large meters as subdivisions of small meters (six as a broad subdivision of three, or eight of four,) then make sure that the repetition of each beat is generally smaller than the main beats (DOWN, down, LEFT, left, RIGHT, right, CENTER, center-up, and so on.) Most of the time seven and nine can be broken down into groups of two or three which, for player reinforcement, should reflect the prevailing musical phrasing of that bar (for 3+2+2, go DOWN, left, further left, RIGHT, further right, CENTER, center-up, and so on.)
Some of these strategic gains may seem trivial, but they all add up in your quest for perfect (or at least usable) sightreading. Proofed scores leading to correct parts with enlightened notation and page layout, led by a prepped and savvy conductor in an intelligently organized session, etc., all contribute. In general, proper beat patterns, religiously used, lead to players who always know where they are, even as they sightread, and are far more confident in their entrances and general performance. Believe me, it shows up on the tracks.
P.S. On a broader and more imperative topic concerning our industry, please refer to my guest editorial elsewhere in this issue.