Conductors: Time and Gesture


I can remember the first time I worked with a world class conductor. His manner and mannerisms were so different from what I was accustomed to that it took me a good while to understand and follow him.

While my encounters with world-class conductors has been admittedly few and far in-between, over the years it has been possible to compartmentalize some basic types and archetypes that seem to be universal in any realm. Whenever working with any new conductor, this broad reference helps with engaging the proper mindset in order to understand the conductor’s approach.

Time and space

With stick technique there are, speaking very basically, three types of conductors:

  • The conductor of time
  • The conductor of gesture
  • The hybrid of time and gesture

The conductor of time is basically a rhythm machine whose pulse is conveyed very strongly. While this pulse may not be apparent in the stick, it will manifest itself in some other body part – the right hand holding the baton – or the head, the hips, or the shoulders.

In this category I would include Sir Georg Solti as an example. While his gestures can get pretty wild and big – even in pianissimo – the beat in the fist of his right hand is very precise.

The stick can mean different things to different conductors.

In this video of Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting Brahms his baton movements are a bit hard to follow. He conveys his energy and excitement with spastic and jerky movements, almost like a marionette – a puppet on a string.

However, again the hand holding the baton is actually very precisely in time with the beat. Typically the conductor of time will demand that the musicians follow his/her beat precisely.

Different conductors of course will use different wrist movements, depending on how they were schooled and on what energy they wish to convey. Some will keep the wrist absolutely frozen and stiff, while others will use what I call the “macaroni wrist” – lots of frenetic noodles and circles.

By the time this movement reaches the end of the baton, deciphering a precise beat can be difficult.

The key is to remember that the fist is where the beat is generated and the end of the baton is where the energy behind the beat gets transferred. Sometimes this transference gets obfuscated with noodles and macaroni.

Therein lies the trick with the rhythmic conductor – if the baton looks confusing, concentrate solely on the fist holding that twirling baton.

Gesture and phrase

The conductor of gesture is more abstract in conveying the pulse and instead focuses his/her attention on the feeling of the music.

This type of conductor may beat behind or ahead of the beat in order to stir up a particular kind of response from the musicians.

  • Behind the beat – a relaxed and broad energy
  • Ahead of the beat – a sense of urgency and anticipation

Conductors of this style circulate mostly among the upper echelons of the world’s finest symphony orchestras. In this circle, the ensemble pulse is fairly established and homogeneous – a gesture-type conductor can focus more on the big picture and will let the musicians worry about keeping strict time.

The hybrid

However, a hybrid conductor – one that might appear anywhere – may fluctuate between rhythmic precision and broad gestures at any given moment.

As long as this hybrid conductor is consistent with their method, the trick here for a musician is to figure out when this conductor is beating time and when they are being more abstract.

NEXT: Leadership styles and the impact of archetypes

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