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Do I Have to Use Beat Patterns?

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One of the areas of choral directing in which there is the greatest disparity between text-book ideas of good practice and what happens in real life is in the use of beat patterns. The orthodoxy is that they provide the correct method for conducting a choir, and they provide the foundation of most approaches to teaching the craft, yet the literature remains full of rude comments about the technique of choir leaders who depart from them – real conductors, it seems, are quite happy to ignore the othodoxy.

As in most well-entrenched debates, each position has its virtues, and real life tends to involve finding a way to sail a coherent course between the polarised points.

The Case for Patterns

  • They provide a lingua franca common to musicians across the western art tradition
  • They reflect and articulate the underlying rhythmic structure of the music
  • They provide a clear framework to help all the performers keep together

The Case against Patterns

  • They box in the directing technique, and inhibit the conductor’s expressiveness
  • They may not reflect what is actually the most interesting musical feature at a particular point
  • They encourage conductors to ‘beat the music to pieces’, as William Ehmann puts it

What happens in Real Life

In real life, nearly all directors use some elements of pattern at least some of the time, but improvise freely around the basic shapes in order to make sense of the specific musical detail. I’ve written at length about four case studies in my book on choral conducting, so won’t repeat the detail here.

But you find that even the most text-book conductor sometimes has a ‘down-beat’ that comes from below and behind (what I came to call the ‘shovel ictus’), and even the most free-style director retains the constituent elements of pattern of approach, ictus, rebound, with the direction of the beat encoding meanings of musical tension and release.

Learning patterns is useful, in the same way that learning scales and arpeggios is useful when studying an instrument. It gives you a well-practised gestural vocabulary that maps well onto patterns of musical shape. And unless you are actually fluent enough at pattern that you can use it at will, any choice not to use it isn’t really a choice at all – it’s just a skill deficit. But just because you can use pattern doesn’t mean that sticking to it at all costs is going to be helpful to your singers.

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