Orchestral conducting technique: internal attacks

What do we usually mean with the term attacks?

The attack is a signal that indicates the start of any action. We could, for example, consider the gunshot that characterises the start of a race as an attack: all competitors acknowledge an impulse that they must start at the same time; even the green at the bottom of a traffic light is the starting signal for an action.

In our case, in the same way, the attack is a gesture that has to show to the whole orchestra the precise moment at which they must begin to execute the piece, and to ensure that it achieves a perfect synchronisation of the whole orchestra, to be implemented unequivocally by all players, in the same way.

We can identify two kinds of attacks: the initial ones and the subsequent ones.

For a subsequent attack, I refer to all those gestures – or impulses – which follow the initial attack; after all, if we reflect for a moment, the entire sequence of movements of a piece can ultimately be viewed as a continuous unbroken chain of attacks.

And in all of them, we can identify the three phases that characterise the realisation of the attack which will be discussed in one of my future articles (rise-fall-contact with the sound).

What is the difference then, between the initial attack and subsequent attack?

The initial attack undoubtedly has a fundamentally important role, because it indicates with exact precision the moment of initial execution. Also, as we will analyse in detail in a few days, it must contain and transmit information about the time, rhythm, dynamics, agogics, and everything else, in a split second before execution.

The subsequent attacks, as we said earlier however, coincide with the musical movements of the bar and with the overall gestures, and cover an equally important, if not superior function, because they are the main elements to guide the evolution and development of the musical conversation, making clear not only the temporal relation, but also expressing between the beats of the bar, and consequently, the construction of the phrases and of the passage.

Let us now examine with a magnifying glass, a special type of subsequent attack that’s encountered quite frequently.

Typically, we find that soon after an attack – initial or subsequent – before a figure followed by a dotted note or a rest, often this figuration creates general problems, especially if the tempo is quick. Generally, it works out fine with a further breath on the rest – or – dotted note – so we have two breaths at close range; the first initial attack and immediately after that, on the rest.

But beware the length of the breath on the subsequent attack is no longer the one that reflects the initial time, but that of the corresponding figure – the eighth note – in the particular case of the following example:

The lack of this second small breath at close range, could create problems overall, as you can see in this famous video. But pay particular attention at minute 1.26, because there the conductor (Yevgeny Mravinsky), whilst talking explains to the musicians the information that his gesture does not contain, and since it does not get the desired result, he repeats at 1.53.

The same applies where instead of a rest, we have a dotted note, the solution is the same: a further breath on dotted note.

In this other famous passage, on the rests, we need to give the subsequent attacks in a rather marked way.


Next Workshop in  Palermo (Sicily) 20-24  July 2018!  Intensive week with piano duo  in Villa del Pigno – Istituto dei ciechi Florio e Salamone.

By Ennio Nicotra 22/05/2016

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