Orchestral conducting technique: let’s analyze a puzzle by Johannes Brahms

Sometimes students are faced with passages that for them, are real puzzles.

Actually the vast majority of these are resolved with great simplicity.

Ilya Musin argued that any problem always had its gestural solution.

Ilya Alexandrovic prepared us for the extreme situation of having to conduct a concert without rehearsals

(an event which is difficult to imagine, but which can be dramatically verified and which has happened to me and some others. One of my colleagues actually had to direct Gounod’s Faust in Kirov theater, which he did not know, without rehearsals and with one day’s warning: nightmare),

and therefore for this reason everything in our conducting had to be crystal clear and not leave any doubt or misunderstanding.

One of these difficult moments is found just before the end of the third movement of Brahms’s second symphony.        



The difficulty lies in having to show a pause that extends from the third beat to the first beat of the next bar; next follows a semiquaver rest and then the resumption of the musical speech.

In the following video you will be able to see the impact of that difficulty on the student.

This can be solved in various ways, at least 3, as you can see in the following video.

The first is unmistakable and simple to implement, but has the weakness that a movement is shown – the first following the pause – as if it were on a rest, whilst actually there is still the tie.

The second is undoubtedly the one that is more coherent with what is written, even if perhaps it is the most delicate to be realised.

The third solution is similar to the first, but shown with one arm.


Usually the solution that you can see in concert halls, mentioned in the video, is the most obvious and common, but it is not correct.

If we take Musin’s assumption that nothing must give cause for misunderstanding as good, then here the conductor in fact jumps from the third beat directly to the second beat of the next bar, so a beat is missing.

If the conductor has had the opportunity to rehearse the passage with the orchestra, this undoubtedly works, (see Kleiber and many others) otherwise there is the risk of generating misunderstanding.

In fact, if you have the patience to pay attention, the pianists are not able to play precisely, because they are missing the reference point given by the first beat. Moreover, the length of the semiquaver rest cannot be clearly indicated

– instead, it is possible in the second solution, where the gesture of closing the pause makes sense of where to lift the bow –

and in fact, it is given out of kindness to the musicians. 

Next intensive workshop in Palermo (Sicily)         15-19 July 2019


Leave a Reply