Playing On or Behind the Conductor’s Beat

When I conduct I ask the ensemble to play on my beat. Band conductors, for some reason, seem to be more likely to want their groups to play on the beat, rather than behind the beat. Orchestral conductors, on the other hand, seem to more universally prefer their ensembles play behind their beat. It’s interesting to look at the different reasons (or excuses) for these practices. Here is one, by a cellist, Yvonne Caruthers.

In practice, nearly every conductor gives a beat before the orchestra plays. The conductor gives the beat, but there’s a tiny lag while it’s processed and executed. Most likely, the audience doesn’t even notice. There’s also the fact that one of the conductor’s roles is not to tell the orchestra where they are “now” but to indicate “what happens next”….so being slightly ahead works better.

This is true, the conductor’s responsibility is to “prep” the ensemble so that they are ready to play what’s about to come up. The most obvious version of this is the “prep beat” the conductor gives to indicate the starting tempo. The conductor can’t hold his or her baton up and then just drop it and have the musicians ready, there needs to be at least one beat patter so the musicians understand the tempo and style they are to enter with.

Then there’s the concerns with distance.

Unless you are sitting in the front few rows, there is a delay in the sound.  Speed of light being faster than that of sound, you see the motion, the orchestra plays to the beat, but you hear the sound slightly later than you see the motion.  This is especially noticeable in long halls or concerts played outdoors where crowd is sitting on a long area of grass and they are a long way from the source of the sound.

If you’ve ever performed antiphonal music you’ve experienced this phenomenon. The skill of following the ictus of the conductor’s pattern, rather than listening and reacting to the sound is essential when the distance between performers/conductors is great. Marching band is another situation where this is particularly true. That said, it’s not really clear why the delay that entire orchestras fall into in playing behind the beat is necessary or desirable due to distance. The brass and percussion, typically furthest away from the conductor, usually don’t dictate the delay, it’s the strings, who are closest to the conductor.

The low and loud sections of the orchestra – cellos, basses, and brass – seem especially susceptible to dragging. A commonly hear explanation is that these instruments ‘speak a little late’. However, this absurdly implies that players are unable to take this effect into account.

I agree with the above author’s assessment. If a band can play on the conductor’s beat (or, for that matter, if a trumpet and trombone section in a jazz band can play squarely on the beat without a conductor), there’s really no excuse why an orchestral brass section can’t also adjust their instrumental technique so they don’t “speak a little late.” Not to mention that I don’t buy that these instruments do this. Maybe a pipe organ, but not a brass instrument.

James Bennette II, writing for wqrx.org, notes another excuse,

“I don’t think it would work as well, because the phenomenon has its roots in the string section,” Falletta explained. Because string players tend to be in sync when they bow their instruments, playing behind the beat comes naturally to them. “They have time to say ‘OK, here we go’, and then get into the beat.” And that sound should have no point or edge; the music should just flow. Rigidly sticking to the downbeat makes the music a bit sharper, even when that isn’t the intention of the conductor (or composer, who knows?).

So some folks feel it’s because low and loud sections speak late, but others state that it’s related to the string section.

Another explanation for lag is that the sound produced by instruments at the back of an orchestra takes longer to reach the front. This theory also collapses with a little observation. For example, I once heard the opening bass pizzicatos of the Passacaglia from Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra sound exactly with the conductor’s beat. Sitting in the back of the violin section, at the opposite side of the stage, I expected the different speeds of sound and light to make even precisely played notes seem late to the visual cue. But my impression was of exact synchronsiation. In contrast, the slow sections of the Berlioz Corsaire Overture, on the same programme, oozed far behind the beat. The laws of physics are irrelevant. Musicians can play with a conductor when it is really necessary, as in a particularly exposed and brittle passage. But when there is more margin for error, they easily abandon the beat.

Exactly. Ensembles are perfectly able to play with the conductor, but choose not to.

Here’s the simple response: When an orchestra plays behind the conductor, it has the room to produce a more expressive sound. “It works so well because the musicians can take in a great deal more information before they play,” said Falletta. Waiting a tick allows the ensemble to take in the trajectory, speed and style of a conductor’s beat, which helps them determine what kind of sound the conductor is hoping to achieve. “It gives them a chance to prepare that sound. So the downbeat comes, and the sound opens after that.” The result? More beautiful music. However, orchestras don’t do this for the duration of a piece; the sound behind the beat is most pronounced in slower movements, and as the music gets faster and rhythms more complex, orchestras may tend to attack the downbeat along with the conductor.

Again, I don’t buy that this is the case. As I noted above, it’s not the ictus of the beat that dictates the tempo and style the conductor communicates, it’s the preparation of that beat.

In my college orchestra, it seems like the conductor conducts ahead of the beat. I know that it’s a common thing, but I’ve never played with a conductor like that so I’m a little confused. It seems like everyone knows exactly when to come in on beat 1, say at the beginning of a piece, but to me it looks like the conductor gives a big downbeat, nothing happens, and then we come in seemingly randomly… And then it’s hard for me to keep the pulse in my head because I don’t really have anything to refer to except for listening to others because the conductor is doing something else.

This question, asked on violinist.com, is curious. It’s possible that the conductor simply isn’t being clear with the beat, but I don’t know how a conductor can conduct ahead or behind the beat. The conductor’s beat patter IS the beat. It’s the ensemble that collectively chooses to play ahead, behind, or right on the conductor’s ictus. It’s the conductor’s responsibility to tell the ensemble where to play.

Adam Neely’s points in the above video are quite good. I think that the most likely explanation is stylistic convention combined with the collective decision of the ensemble and conductor. Be sure to watch Neely’s followup video.

What do you think? When you perform (as a musician or conductor) do you prefer playing directly on the beat or slightly behind? Leave your comment below.