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What Do Orchestra Conductor Gestures Mean?

Composer John Debney conducts from the podium at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, Calif.

You might have seen a musical performance where there is a conductor directing the performance using a baton — or just his or her hands — and then wondered what these movements mean.

Indeed, all the movements the conductor makes have a meaning. These gestures are a language the conductor uses to convey messages and musical ideas to the orchestra, and performers are well versed in reading these gestures.

Below, composer John Ross Jesensky breaks down some of the gestures commonly used by conductors in both orchestras and film music scoring sessions.

1. Beat and tempo

Once the music begins playing, the conductor is seen raising his or her hands, and this indicates the performance is about to begin.

Through this symbol, members of the orchestra playing on that occasion ready themselves by setting their instruments well to begin playing. After this, the conductor looks to see that everyone is ready to play. In some performances, the conductor may instruct the pianist to play a chord or node to help the rest of the performers to understand their starting notes.

What follows is a preparatory beat, which is commonly referred to as the upbeat. This beat is normally portrayed using the right hand. The conductor traces shapes in the air that measure and indicate each beat according to changes from downward to upward motion. There is also the downbeat, which indicates the first beat in a bar. To signal the occurrence of the beat, the conductor then changes the direction of the baton instantly.

2. Dynamics

A conductor can indicate dynamics in different ways, and this can vary through the change in the size of the conducting movements, whereby larger shapes represent louder sounds.

One can even use the hand that is free to signal shifts in dynamic, and in this case an upward motion would indicate a crescendo while a downward motion would mean a diminuendo.

Varying the size of movements while conducting frequently leads to different gestures depending on the circumstances and stage of the performance.

3. Cueing

Cueing is basically the signaling of entries when a section should start playing. A cue should forecast with certainty the movement of ictus to follow to help players or singers affected by the action to start playing simultaneously.

Most conductors signal cues through an inhalation or sniff (semi-audible), but others prefer using eye contact targeting the players that should take action to give the performance a new direction.

A cue is vital as it helps performers to understand when is the perfect time to shift to a new note.

About John Jesensky

A Los Angeles-based composer, orchestrator, and conductor, John Jesensky has contributed a great deal to his profession throughout the course of a truly remarkable career. A graduate of the Hartt School of Music who also earned a master’s degree from NYU’s Scoring for Film and Multimedia program, John’s award-winning work has been featured at countless festivals, including Cannes Film Festival, La Gona Film Festival, and the Bare Bones Festival.

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