On Conducting (5): Visual Noise

Noise is a problem in life.

Radio DJs may be just doing their job when they’re noisy, but that factor is also why I tend not to listen to any commercial radio.  “Cheerleading”-type preachers can be noisy as they try to pump people up (as opposed to instructing).  Noisy commercials, noisy car salesmen, noisy politicians … we have a rather noisy life.

In conducting, a common problem in is the “noisy” baton.  (We sometimes talk of tone “color” and whether a timbre is “darker” than another one, so another mixed image shouldn’t detract too much from understanding.)  It’s actually difficult to find a good video example of this on YouTube, because no discerning conductor would want this kind of thing featured.  I myself have been appalled when viewing “noisy” examples of my own conducting.  We all do get noisy once in a while, but visual noise is a habit to be broken.

The positive principle to be noted here is that gestures (like words) should be meaningful.  When gestures become too flamboyant, too frequently flourishing, or too habitually large, visual noise is the result, and the ensemble will have difficulty inferring meaning from the gestures, no matter how musical the thoughts are in the conductor’s head.

Military band conductors are an important breed in the U.S., but the conducting skills of those I’ve observed personally has not always been as efficient and rule-following as their men and women need to be in order for the unit to function properly.  I’ve met two top-level military conductors personally, and they were both much better as conversationalists with than they were as exemplars ofUSAF band conducting gesture!  Oddly enough, the most recent military band concert I attended offered a particularly visible example of the noisy baton syndrome:  unnecessary arm-waving and superfluous gestures were common.  An assistant conductor might not have been judged worthy of a command yet, but what I saw indicated he was a better conductor in terms of movement.  (I know:  it’s sometimes just as important to be a good PR man, a staunch leader, a good administrator.  Here, I’m commenting only on conducting leadership as manifest in gesture.)

Gestures should not be too large when the music is small.  The beat pattern must not indicate accents on every beat unless the music does that.  The wrist should not snap so that the hand whips up and down on every beat.  And the left hand should not constantly, meaninglessly mirror the right hand.  (More on “mirroring” in a future installment.)  All these and more are examples of extraneous, visual “noise.”

Something is probably askew somewhere when we need “white noise” machines to sleep.  (My phone app even has blue noise, brown noise, violet noise, and pink noise options!)

Something also needs attention when there is so much noise in “religion” that people can’t hear or see the meaning.

Something is also amiss when an ensemble can’t follow a conductor because his baton is too noisy.


4 thoughts on “On Conducting (5): Visual Noise

  1. Anne Boyd 04/28/2016 / 10:10 am

    Excellent article! Entertaining while making thought provoking statements which I personally agree with…and find relevant! Thank you from Transylvania Mountains where music often flows from gifted musicians of all ages! ~~ Anne >

    Liked by 1 person

    • Brian Casey 05/06/2016 / 2:53 pm

      Always appreciate your reading. Also glad that something that might appear almost esoteric to some had some relevance for you. Of course I know you are musically educated and appreciative. Wish I could hear some of the same things you hear nearby.


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