Published on Friday, 15 January 2010 21:41
Written by Bruce Gale
Debate about whether or not conductors should use a baton when conducting dates back at least to the early years of the nineteenth century, possibly earlier. Some music directors, particularly choral directors, argue that by giving up the baton conductors exchange one rigid finger made of wood for ten natural ones that are far more expressive. Most band conductors, however, regard the baton as important for its ability to magnify the size of the conductor’s patterns and gestures, thus making them clearer. In many ensembles, the baton has also become a symbol of authority. That said, many textbooks on conducting suggest that the student learn the basic beat patterns without a baton. This approach is designed to encourage a more relaxed and natural grip when the baton is added later.
Like musical instruments, the overall shape and design of the various batons available on the market vary widely. This is probably as it should be, since individual hand and finger sizes also vary enormously. Even so, a few guidelines can be suggested for those wishing to buy one. Daniel Kohut and Joe Grant [Learning to Conduct and Rehearse (Prentice-Hall, N.J. 1990) p. 35] suggest conductors use a well-balanced, relatively lightweight baton with a small bulb. Small bulbs are preferable to large ones because the latter tend to encourage gripping by the fingers, thus contributing to excess tension. A well-balanced baton is one where the pivot or fulcrum point is next to the bulb. Held in the proper position for conducting, it should feel almost weightless. As for length, about 12 inches is usually quite sufficient, although some conductors prefer longer models when directing larger ensembles.
Conductors who do use a baton need to be aware that it is essentially an extension of the right arm. This means that the focus of attention should be on the tip of the baton and not upon the hand. A typical error occurs in the ready position described earlier. In this case, the tip of the baton in the right hand should be level with the fingers in the left hand. This implies that the elbow of the left arm will be forward of the right arm. If the right hand is extended equally to meet the left hand instead, the focus of the performers will be on the hands. This will make the use of the baton superfluous.
When using the baton, the palm of the hand should be facing downward with the baton held between the thumb and the forefinger. The bulb of the baton should touch the centre of the palm in such a way that the baton extends forward in a straight line or pointing slightly to the left, roughly parallel to the floor.
If the baton points downwards, then the bulb is above the centre of the palm. If it points upwards, then the bulb is sitting too low in the palm. Do not grip the baton too tightly as this will create unnecessary tension, lock the wrist and thus impede movement. Ensure also that the little finger on the right hand does not protrude outwards. What is wrong in this picture?