Lexicon Of Signs

London Improvisers Orchestra: some conducting signals
[from notes by Caroline Kraabel, 2005]

  1. Hand out flat palm upward: at cue, play a sustained sound.
  2. Fist held up: at cue (downbeat to fist) play a staccato sound.2.a) Bringing fist down on open palm: Sforzando (that is, start with a loud attack and go immediately to a quiet sustain)
  3. Hand across neck OR gathering up the air with both hands and closing fingers: Stop. (Can apply to individuals, sub-groups as indicated or to the entire group)
  4. Hand over mouth: at cue, play unvoiced sounds (that is, without pitch).
  5. Touching imaginary watch: at cue (sometimes with count/beating time), play time.
  6. Tugging ear and pointing to someone/thing: imitate the sounds of the person/group/thing being pointed at until asked to stop.
  7. Hands rolling over each other: develop what you're doing, continue.
  8. Beckoning: play, or play more, or solo.
  9. Playing air saxophone: solo.
  10. Playing air piano: accompany.
  11. Playing air contrabass: underpin.
  12. Wiggling glasses (can be imaginary glasses): at cue, do something completely different from what you were doing.
  13. Indicating a playing group and another group, then raising one arm while lowering the other: cross-fade - the group that was playing fades out, the other group fades in, trying to mimic the sound of the fading-out group.
  14. Index finger and thumb held together, sliding up and down: glissando, following direction and speed of fingers.
  15. Hands far apart, palms facing each other: loud.
  16. Hands close together, palms facing: quiet - moving the hands apart and together indicates crescendo/decrescendo.
  17. Finger to lips, or holding up index and thumb close together: quietly.
  18. Both hands forming a circle: create a loop and keep playing it until asked to stop.
  19. Two fingers together, sweeping downward: double bar-line: at cue repeat once what you have just done.
  20. Pointing to mouth: at cue, sing or use your voice.
  21. Baton held vertically and moving horizontally: play only as the baton passes in front of you.
    21.a) Baton held vertically, moving horizontally and other hand held out flat, palm upwards: initiate a sustained sound as the baton passes in front of you. If this signal is then repeated, initiate a different sustained sound when the baton passes again - if the flat hand is moving upwards, make it a higher pitched sound; if downwards, make it lower.
    21.b) Baton held vertically, moving horizontally and other hand held up in fist: play a staccato sound just as baton passes in front of you.
    21.c) Baton held vertically and other hand waving in the air: Discombobulate. Gradually take apart the material that you're playing, starting as the baton passes in front of you.
    21.d) Baton held vertically, moving horizontally and other hand over mouth: play unvoiced sound as baton passes in front of you.
    21.e) Rose held vertically and moving horizontally: stop playing as the rose passes in front of you.
  22. Holding up finger at an angle in front of someone: play something marvellous at next cue.
  23. Baton held horizontally and moving in steps (leger lines): with sustains: move up or down in pitch in time with baton.
  24. Letter cues (Phil Wachsmann): Making circles with thumb and index finger of both hands next to each other: B-flat. semi-circle with fingers and thumb crooked in: G. Middle finger, ring finger and small finger held
  25. out straight horizontally: E. Ring and small fingers held out straight horizontally: F. Ring and small fingers held out straight horizontally, with baton across: F-sharp.
  26. Pointing to head and holding up one or more fingers of the other hand -memory. The first time you see this signal, remember what you are doing at that point - the second and any subsequent times, reproduce it.
  27. from David Leahy: mind the gap - conductor makes a circle with one hand (as opposed to the loop signal, which uses both hands). When conductor touches the circle with other hand or baton, stop playing, resume when hands move apart again. This creates sudden silences within dense textures.
  28. David Leahy again: Morph. This signal is in three parts - Part 1: conductor indicates "morph" by making a "stirring the pot" gesture. Part 2: conductor indicates what we should 'morph' INTO, e.g. unvoiced sound, a sustain, etc. Part 3: Conductor holds arms wide, horizontally and begins to move them slowly together. As the conductor's arms move towards palms touching in front of her/him, the orchestra gradually changes what they're playing into whatever was indicated in part 2. When the conductor's palms come together, the transformation should be complete.
  29. David L: play something sweet - gesture as though stroking a cuddly bunny.
  30. Steve B: two hands parallel at an angle, one lower than the other: 'shadow' indicated player/s. (Shadowing=play quietly behind the player/s, using the same material (like an echo)), [ends]

Some LIO signals that don’t tell the musicians what specific sorts of sounds to make.
Kraabel sign: the conductor holds up a certain number of fingers, one to ten. That number of people in the group should play. The group decides within itself who is to play, when and how.
A few LIO signs that tell players what sound to make.
Sustained sound. One hand held out flat, palm up. Sustained sound begins among selected players or the entire group when the conductor’s other hand or baton touches the palm-up hand. Either hand or the baton can be moved up or down to signal changes in the pitch of the sustained sound.
Stacatto sound. One fist held up. When the other hand or the baton touches the fist, play a stacatto sound.
Two variations on the above, both introduced by David Leahy: A stacatto silence - holding up a hollow fist, or circle of finger and thumb, while everyone is busy playing. When the other hand or baton touches this hollow hand, everyone stops for a moment, until the two hands part.
and Sforzando piano: holding out one flat hand, palm up AND one fist. When the fist touches the flat hand, the group plays a sharply accented sound that quickly fades into a very quiet sustained sound.
Play an unvoiced sound: the conductor covers her mouth with her hand. On a cue, the orchestra plays unpitched, unvoiced sounds or noises.
Sing or use your voice (often used by Alison Blunt): The conductor points to her mouth. On cue, the musicians respond using their voices rather than their instruments.
Loop. The conductor makes a circle with one or two hands, indicating that the players should start reiterating their material again and again, as a loop.
Kraabel sign for "repeat a single time": After some discrete event, the conductor holds up two fingers close together and sweeps them downward, then gives a cue. On the cue, the entire orchestra attempts to repeat what they’ve just played, just once but very precisely.
Antoher Kraabel sign - "play the opposite of that person": Point at one musician, then at a second, then point your thumbs in opposite directions. The players should try and play opposite things.
Memory … When the conductor points to her/his head and holds up one finger for the first time during a piece, that means that all the musicians should remember what they are playing or not playing at that point. If, later in the piece, the conducter holds up one finger and points to her/his head again, then (usually on a downbeat) the musicians should remember and return to the material they were playing when they first saw this signal. There can be several different memory signals, holding up one, two, three fingers or more.
There are also cues for glissandi, speeding up, slowing down, attempting to arrive at a unison (Sylvia Hallet), mimicking or copying another player, soloing, accompanying, underpinning, playing in time/tempo.These are all indicated by fairly evident descriptive gestures and movements.
Wiggling the imaginary glasses. For some reason this cue is called the Harry Secombe (sp? Or is it Eric Morecambe (also sp.)? One of those British institutions from the twentieth century ... cue. The conductor first wiggles her/his glasses (or a pair of imaginary glasses that she/he is wearing) up and down, and then gives a downbeat - on the downbeat, everyone makes a drastic change to what they’re playing/not playing … the aim is for a sudden complete alteration in the music, but it can end up with players sort of swapping places so that the overall texture remains fairly constant … something to beware of!
Another nice one is the pan - the conductor holds the baton (or hand or object) up in front of the group and moves it horizontally. Each musician makes a sound only when the baton or hand/object is directly in front of them. This can be adapted so that the moving cue initiates a sustained sound for each player that it passes, and then cuts off the sustain as it passes back the other way, for example.
Similar in mood is the crossfade, where two groups of players are designated (either by pointing to individuals or by air-circling a cognate group) and each is asked to follow one of the conductor’s hands. As one hand rises, the other falls, so that the sounds of the two groups fade in and out of each other.
Sectioning - players within the orchestra can stand up, indicating that they want to lead a section. Whoever feels like following that standing person joins in with them, and they play together as much as possible, within the overall sound of the whole group.

LIO Basic conduction Symbols