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Conducting: When orchestras are used to playing Behind the beat


Thanks for the responses to my request for suggestions regarding the
conducting of orchestras and choirs and the synchronization of the two,
especially from the standpoint of following the initial attack (orchestras
many times play
after the beat). Several respondents asked for a compilation of the
replies so I am sending them unedited.

Laddie Bell, Ph.D.


I have been conducting orchestras and choruses for many years
in most of the Choral Masterworks. I don't let the orchestra play with
lag. I've never even had to address it. I am very precise with my beat
pattern and they fall in. I am often quite some distance from the chorus
and they have to learn to anticipate the beat so that we can all be
together. If the orchestra has a lag and then the chorus has a lag, all
hell breaks loose . I only have the orch. for one rehearsal, the chorus
orch. for one and a dress rehearsal, I don't have time to deal with all
that. I have never had a complaint from an orchestra member about it.


I sang in a concert once where the conductor (of the orchestra) asked
us to sing behind the beat to match the orchestra. You can get used
to it.

Most instrumentalists, though, are used to playing under different
conductors and there's certainly no standard to the "lag" you
mention. Ask them to play right on your ictus, and maybe they will.
Make sure that your beats are well prepared and well articulated.
Most orchestral groups that I've directed (and played in) can make the
to playing "on the beat" if you tell them right off that that is what you
want. Don't wait until you are having a lot of trouble before telling
I don't know if this is helpful, but it's my experience that any
decent orchestra will follow you once you tell them where the beat is,
if they don't know you. You can do so inconspicuously by doing
something like beating a few beats (rather than one) as upbeat and
counting, so they connect your sound to your arms. I've never had it
fail, I think!
>From my limited perspective, you simply need to tell the orchestra that
you are a "downbeat" conductor, and the notes are to start on your ictus,
not some time after. They need to adjust to your style. Good luck!
Tell the orchestra that the beat happens at the bottom of the stroke. They

have done this before. All of us choral directors ( except those of the
West in the 60's and 70's) seem to prefer this method. When starting out
the orchestra, give decided points in the conducting to illustrate what
I always meet with my orchestra about 30 minutes before the choir joins
(Usually they are somewhere else on the building warming up.) This gives
a chance to check tricky tempo changes, etc. with the players. This way we
can address any problems in private (which the players appreciate) and we
become more of a team working together. I ask if there is anything I can
to be more clear in my conducting. I ALWAYS begin by saying that I
understand that they are accustomed to playing after the beat but that i
prefer it exactly on the beat. Then if it doesn't happen we can work on
briefly until I get what I need. I try to take the approach that we all
want a good outcome and also i understand that they are usually
sight-reading and so don't hassle them too much for a wrong note. Just a
quick glance or "did you catch that sharp?" is enough.
I'm just a student of music education, but my conducting professor gave
us an interesting solution to that problem. He told us to reserve our left
hand for the chorus and hold it up higher than the right hand. And when
you beat time, make your pattern bigger in the left hand than in the
right, so since your hand is moving faster because your pattern is larger,
it looks like the tempo is faster. It might be something to try. Hope you
have a great concert!
I have solved the problem just by TELLING the orchestra that the sound
occur on the ictus/beat and whatever they must do to accomplish that,
do so. However, this means that the conductor's beat must be precise and
"down". If the conductor is of the ilk that expects sound as they "pull
of the beat, it will always be behind. A video tape of yourself may give
you some answers. But in the end, they just have to be told, since many
so used to whimpy conductors who accept anything and so the orchestra has
have a collective mind of it's own when they play for such a conductor.
(Please - - no offense here - - I am not accusing you of anything nor
slighting you at all, since, I don't know how you conduct at all. I
that if your choir sings to your beat, you are not the problem.)

I suspect that they are used to someone who "pulls out" of a beat and you
train your chorus to sing TO the beat. Sometimes a quick demonstration of
the chorus alone for the orchestra to see/hear will solve the problem as
well. Then, they will know "what's up" and if they are good musicians,
solve the problem themselves without any badgering from the podium.

Many times, brass (esp. French horn) players lag. It's the nature of horn
playing. It happened to me last spring for a Faure requiem. When I
them to the fact that their sound was behind the strings (I almost get a
sense that they were "testing" me!) they fixed everything up in a hurry.
They do NOT want to be the culprits of poor musicianship, either!

Well, Laddie, that's my 2 cents worth. Hope it helps and......JUST TELL
THEM TO STOP IT! (grin).
I have worked with professional string/wind players many times. The thing
that has worked best for me is, when I first notice that the orchestra
players are not with me on my initial attack, I simply tell them kindly
I expect them to play right with my downbeat, not after the downbeat. The
few minutes spent at the beginning dealing with this is certainly worth it
in the long run. My worst experience was with an oboe player that I had
hired to play with my small vocal ensemble for a Tenebrae service on Good
Friday. No matter what I told her, I could not get her with us, and we
struggled through the entire work. Needless to say, I have not hired her
again since that time.
I have not found that to be the case (yet!). One is aware, of course,
strings by their nature won't speak as definitely and quickly as a wind
instrument, unless an accent or strong attack is desired. I just
220 singers and players this past weekend, some of whom were 20 yards away

from me. It is a strange feeling, but one that can be gotten used to and
successfully realized.

I do find that early on in the initial orchestral rehearsal, I need to be
clear at what is acceptable to me. That may mean repeating an entrance
or three times with feedback each time to let the players know what my
"threshold" is. The second thing to look at is oneself. Is your ictus in

the wrist? The fingertips? The tip of the stick? The elbow? The

Unless one is confident it is at the point of the stick and not the wrist
or fingers, to say look at the stick will not yield much! One can either
watch oneself on video with a couple of respected colleagues, or in a
rehearsal watch the offending players' eyes. If they are looking at your
wrist - then that's where they perceive the ictus to be. Then if one is
sure the point of the stick is what they want to be looked at - ask for
just that. You'll know soon enough if you have two or three conflicting

Finally - ask yourself when they are behind - do you as a conductor get
bigger? Is there more or less flick to the beat? Which is more effective

to follow? Bigger definitely isn't always better!

The final caveat is the players may normally play under a conductor who
allows excessive lag. If they are good players (meaning somewhat
flexible), they will adjust to you - if they are shown the parameters.
I am an amateur violinist and choral singer, and recently had the
experience of
auditioning on violin for a conductor who was trying to show me how to
play behind his beat. He insists that the better the orchestra, the
more they play behind his beat. After some discussion, I began to
understand why this might be the case for an orchestra, but I cannot
fathom how he can conduct a choral work in this manner.

on October 15, 2004 10:00pm
If an orchestra is playing behind your beat, it is usually their safety mechanism to ensure their own ensemble playing under an unclear and indecisive conductor. If a choir sings behind your beat as well,consider giving up!

on September 27, 2005 10:00pm
I've sung in many choirs, and played in orchestras, as well as conducted both, individually and together. I always suggest that the orchestra or choir play or sing with one another and I am simply there as a guide - I try not to be too insistent with the time, as time is invariably more solid if the ensemble takes ownership for it themselves. When trying to unify the two groups, there is an interesting compromise that must take place between orchestra and chorus. When the orchestra is playing a passage without choir, the time is in their hands; however, when the chorus enters, there is often a lag between where they are standing and where the front desks of the orchestra (and I) are positioned. It is then infinitely helpful to tell the front of the group simply to listen backwards, and play with the choir. Once it is understood that the choir bears the brunt of the responsibility for tempo, things most usually work very well!
on February 15, 2006 10:00pm
Each performer pretends to have a paper aiplane that travels at the speed sound. They each aim their airplane at a woman if the 17th row of the audience. All of the airplanes should hit her a the same time. It is obvious that the ones furthest away must throw first and the ones closest must throw the latest. Thus, if the orchestra, which is closer, plays later than the choir, which is usually furthest away, the sound will be together.

Another way of saying this is that those in the back play or sing by what they see, and those in the front by what they hear.

The mystery of the orchestra's ability to know just when to play is quite difficult to explain. I performed in the pit of Wagner's Ring under Zubin Meta who is no slouch, with Lyric Opera of Chicago, which is no amateur group, to be sure. I have never experienced the length of delay that they employ, not in Germany or Austria or elsewhere in the States, yet the ensemble was perfect.

There are things that happen in a good performance with a good condcutor that are inexplicable.

Tom Hunt now in Iowa
on August 19, 2008 10:00pm
This is for me a mystery, or a divine comedy. I can't explain it but it happens.

I have conducted small ensembles and I'm so sure the ensemble didn't play after the beat, except for occassions when I give a big downbeat or a final full chord. As a choral singer, we always sing on the beat. However, when I played in the orchestra (as a pianist) for works like Carmina Burana and El Amor Brujo, I noticed I was together with the orchestra in playing right after the beat. It's like the conductor is going a little lower than the imaginary downbeat line, especially during big downbeats or accents. Honestly in all these cases I mentioned, the lag between choir/soloist and orchestra was barely noticeable, even after recording playback.

hmmm...crazy world isn't it...