Conducting Variable Metres

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I mentioned recently an email with a couple of good, nitty-gritty questions about conducting technique. Having looked last time at how to wean an inexperienced choir onto needing only a single prep beat to come in on an anacrusis, today we’re onto a more complex conducting task:

How do you conduct something such as Gibbons Short Service, where there is no consistent number of beats to the bar?

This is an interesting question, as the available approaches are inflected by somewhat conflicting questions of technique, pragmatism and musical context.

I know conductors who would see the correct answer as: you change your conducting pattern every bar to give the right number of beats. And, whilst this is a sensible answer in that it will make sense to modern musicians accustomed to modern barring and modern beat patterns, I’m not sure it’s the most helpful answer to someone facing this challenge for the first time.

At a pragmatic level, if you’ve got lots of experience conducting variable metres, then this is just more of the same, no problem. But if your conducting experience to date has been primarily within regular metres, then changing pattern every bar represents a significant cognitive overhead, especially when tasked with all the other calls on your attention when you’re helping a choir make music. The odds are stacked against you getting this right every time in rehearsal.

And at a musical level, it’s arguably not entirely necessary. If the piece in question were written in the last hundred years or so, the changing metres would likely be a significant and salient musical feature, and you’d need to get that irregularity into your gestures to elicit the right effect. But with pre-baroque music, changing ‘metre’ isn’t about irregularity, it’s about flexibility. Barlines in C16th music are mostly added by modern editors to help modern musicians make sense of the music; they don’t have that same primary organising function they assumed in later music.

The barlines are still useful, though, as they mark where the editor has done a significant part of your analytical work for you. They are placed so that the downbeats fall on the main pulses within the course of the music - what Renaissance musicians would call the tactus. And what evidence there is about how choirs or vocal ensembles were conducted in the Renaissance describes a general outlining of this tactus - an alternation of accent and lift that is clearly the ancestor of the modern 2-pattern.

So, to start off with, I would suggest that the most important thing is to get the downbeats in the right place, so that everyone feels the main pulses together. By necessity, if you’re giving downbeats, you’ll also be giving upbeats in order to get your hand back to the right place for the next one. In the first instance, where there are more than two main pulses per bar just to pulse them at the bottom of the downbeat, so that you are in the right place for the upbeat when it arrives.

Over time, you may find yourself adding direction to these intermediate beats - outwards to anticipate the up-beat, in across the body to anticipate an outward gesture - such that you end up looking rather like the person giving the correct pattern for the number of beats in the bar as recommended by our putative modern conductor above. But the point of starting by getting the main downbeats in place, and only later filling in the smaller-scale beats, is what happens when you make a mistake.*

Having a secure larger-scale structure gives you two advantages. First, it is much easier for you to get back on track when a mid-bar beat goes off in the wrong direction - you know when the next downbeat is coming and you can meet the singers there. Second, your singers are also much more likely to be feeling the music’s general pattern rather than counting small beats, and are thus less likely to be distracted by your error.

*Note: when, not if. Conductors are human beings, mistakes are inevitable.

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