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Lexicon Of Signs

London Improvisers Orchestra: some conducting signals

London Improvisers Orchestra conducting cues word doc.

London Improvisers Orchestra: some conducting signals as of November 2018
Note: obedience to the conductor’s request to play is not compulsory!


1. Play a sustained sound: Hand out flat palm upward: at cue (other hand or baton touches flat hand for a downbeat), play a sustained sound.
1b. Variations in pitch for the sustained sound can be achieved by moving the flat hand or horizontal baton upwards (higher pitched sustained sound) or downward (lower pitched sustained sound)
2. Play a staccato sound: Fist held up... at cue (given by baton or other hand touching fist) play a staccato sound. Sometimes preceded by other hand holding up a number of fingers, corresponding to the number of staccato sounds to be played.
3. Sforzando Piano. Bringing fist down on open palm: on impact, start with a loud attack and go immediately to a quiet sustain.
4. Mind the gap (from David Leahy): conductor makes a circle with index finger and thumb of one hand (as opposed to the loop signal, which uses both hands). When conductor touches this circle with other hand or baton, stop playing; resume when hands move apart again. This creates a sudden silence within dense textures.
5. Stop. Hand across neck OR gathering up the air with both hands and closing fingers, OR holding up hand facing players, palm outward (Can apply to individuals or sub-groups as indicated, or to the entire group).
6. Gradually come to a stop (Sonia Paço-Rocchia): conductor indicates player or group by grabbing the air in front of them with one hand, then she pulls hand downwards in a zigzag line. This means: “gradually bring what you are playing to a close now”.
7. Unvoiced sounds: hand over mouth, means play sounds that don’t have a pitch.
8. Time: conductor touches imaginary watch on wrist, and then gives downbeat (sometimes with count or beating of time/tempo), play time. The beating of time can also be used to mean ‘slow down’ or ‘speed up’.
9. Listen to... : Tugging ear and pointing to someone/s or something means listen to the sounds of the person/group/thing being pointed at and play along with them until asked to stop.
10. Density: hands held facing each other and moving in the horizontal plane (left/right). The closer the hands get to each other, the more dense the sound. The farther apart the hands move on the horizontal plane, the sparser the sound becomes. THIS MUST APPLY TO THE GROUP, and not just to individuals – therefore, when the hands are far apart, you may well not be required to play at all, in order to achieve maximum sparseness.
11. Dynamics: Hands far apart in the vertical plane (high/low), palms facing each other: loud. Hands close together in the vertical plane, palms facing: quiet – moving the hands apart and together indicates crescendo/decrescendo.
12. Develop what you're doing, continue: hands rolling over each other.
13. Sudden complete alteration: cue comes first (conductor waggles or wiggles imaginary spectacles à la Eric Morecombe). At conductor’s downbeat, immediately do something completely different from what you were doing until then (includes stopping if you’re playing, starting if you’re not). The aim is 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 be aware of!

14. Cross-fade: conductor indicates a playing group and another group, then raising one arm while lowering the other the group that was playing fades out, the other group fades in, trying to mimic the sound of the fading-out group.
15. Glissando: index finger and thumb held together and sliding up and down means perform a glissando, following direction and speed of fingers.
16. Play very quietly: Finger to lips, or holding hands up horizontally, palms together.
17. Loop: Both hands forming a circle means create a short repeating loop and keep playing it until asked to stop.
18. Double bar-line (single repeat): indicated by index and middle fingers fingers held together, sweeping downward – wait for downbeat cue and then repeat (one time) what you have just done.
19. Pan: baton held vertically and moving horizontally means play only as the baton passes just in front of you. 

20. Initiate a sustained sound as the baton passes in front of you: baton held vertically, moving horizontally and other hand held out flat, palm upwards means 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. Play a staccato sound just as baton passes in front of you: baton held vertically, moving horizontally and other hand held up in fist: play a staccato sound just as baton passes in front of you.

22. Discombobulate: baton held vertically and other hand waving in the air means discombobulate: gradually take apart the material that you're playing, starting as the baton passes in front of you.

23. Play unvoiced sound just as baton passes in front of you: baton held vertically, moving horizontally and other hand over mouth means play an unvoiced sound just as the baton passes in front of you.

24. Stop playing as the baton passes in front of you: baton held vertically and moving horizontally, other hand to throat/neck means stop playing as the baton passes in front of you.
25. Cue (get ready): Holding up finger at an angle in front of someone: be prepared to play something marvelous at next cue.
26. Everybody ELSE do something: The conductor waves her hand behind her own head... this means that whatever signal follows will be a cue, applying only to the musicians who are not already playing something.
27. Letter/pitch 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 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.
28. Attempt to arrive at a unison (Sylvia Hallett): Conductor draws a horizontal line with her index fingers and thumbs in front of the group; they play sustained sounds and gradually agree on a specific pitch until they are all playing the same single pitch (octaves OK if unison difficult).
29. 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.
30. Shadow (Steve Beresford): two hands parallel at an angle, one lower than the other, means you should ‘shadow’ the indicated player/s. (Shadowing=play quietly behind the player/s, using the same material, like a quiet echo).
31. Memory: Pointing to head and holding up one or more fingers of the other hand: the first time you see this signal, remember what you are doing at that point – the second and subsequent times, reproduce it on a downbeat cue. There can be several ‘Memory’ cues, numbered 1, 2, 3 etc.
32. Morph (David Leahy): 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 sounds, a sustain, etc. Part 3: Conductor holds arms wide horizontally and begins to move them slowly together. As the conductor's arms move towards centre (outstretched 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.
33. Shift into another dimension (Phil Wachsmann): while part or all of the group is playing, conductor draws a horizontally oriented rectangle in the air. Gripping this rectangle by its two ends, conductor rotates it slowly towards a vertical orientation. As the rectangle moves, each musician gradually alters what they’re playing until, when the rectangle is vertical, they’ve moved the music into another dimension
34. Crescendo/decrescendo (Phil Wachsmann). This cue can either be played immediately as it is first signaled or counted to four beats by the conductor’s other hand after it’s been indicated... watch Phil’s other hand, too! The cue for crescendo is index finger and thumb held together and moved horizontally, getting farther apart (like a horizontal ‘V’)... If Phil does this quickly, it usually means he wants you to wait for his four-beat count – the crescendo starts quietly on ‘1’ and ends LOUD on ‘4’. When Phil signals the horizontal ‘V’ more slowly and his other hand is not active, then you do the crescendo along with the ‘V’ signal. Decrescendo is a similar signal, also sometimes played to a count, but starts (loudly) with the thumb and index finger apart and ends (very quietly) with them together (‘V’ in the opposite direction); same parameters for counting decrescendi.
35. Heart-felt (Phil Wachsmann): Conductor puts hand on heart, indicating the person or group that s/he is addressing. This means play soulfully, sweetly, lyrically and with heart.
36. 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.
37. Virus (Caroline Kraabel): Conductor passes card featuring letter ‘V’ to a musician. They are infected, and must play something... they can pass the virus of what they are playing to another instrumentalist by touch. As long as both are touching, both keep playing. When contact is broken, originator stops playing and newly infected person continues and can infect others.
38. Go for a walk (Dave Leahy): Conductor walks with fingers of one hand on other arm: musicians may get up and walk around the space while playing.
39. The dying fall (Caroline Kraabel):Raised arm slowly and waveringly descends to hang next to body. This means fade the sound out very gradually, lingering long on the quietest final part.

Caroline Kraabel: Signs to do with listening

40. Numbers: Conductor holds up a certain number of fingers; this indicates the number of people that should be playing at once. The musicians must work this out between themselves and listen to each other to achieve this. The conductor may change the number at any time, or keep to one number.

41. Scanning: Conductor cups one hand behind each ear and turns head from side to side. Unless a sub-group has been indicated, everyone plays. While playing, each musician scans with her ears, listening specifically, and in quick succession, to each of the other players, to ensure that she can hear and respond to all of the other musicians. The musicians should consciously and continuously regulate their volume and density, so that the sounds made by the quietest instruments are still generally audible. This cue also implies a responsibility on the part of each player to be producing something sufficiently distinctive to be recognised by the other musicians!

42. Listen and mimic/imitate (almost identical with ‘Listen to...’, number 9 above): The conductor indicates an individual or group and tugs her earlobe while now indicating a different individual or group that is already playing. The first person/people should listen to and mimic the second as closely as possible.

43. Opposites: The conductor indicates an individual or group and tugs her earlobe while now indicating a different individual or group that is already playing. She then points with her thumbs to right and left. The first person/people should listen to the second and play something that (in her/their opinion) contrasts as much as possible with what the other is/are doing.

Intermediate signs:

44. Listen to them and not yourself: Conductor points to a player or group and then points to another player or group while covering one ear with her free hand. First player/group should play while listening as hard as possible to the second player/group, and trying NOT to listen to themselves AT ALL.

45. Listen to yourself/yourselves and not them: Conductor indicates group/player and then gestures with both hands from her ears towards her chest. Player/Group should only listen to their own sounds, ignoring sounds from from the rest of the group or outside.

Signs to do with not listening

46. Process (not listening): Conductor holds up both hands with fingers inter-woven, like cogs. Each musician concentrates on her own sounds and avoids listening to others by creating a process for producing sounds that is very very absorbing and demands great concentration. The musicians listen as little as possible even to themselves; they should be concentrating on the difficult and strenuous process by which the sounds come about.

47. Trance (not listening): Conductor covers her eyes. The musicians play something so very simple and comfortable (possibly sustained or repetitive) that they need not listen to themselves or each other. Their playing should be such as allows them to approach a trance state.

48. Creative avoidance of responsiveness (not listening): Conductor covers her mouth. The musicians play while trying to avoid anything that is obviously a response to what the others are playing. Evidently, this requires one to listen to some extent, but the listening should be light and fleeting and almost in spite of oneself.

49. Not listening: Conductor covers her ears. This one can only be achieved when the group has really worked on the previous three cues. Here the group plays together, feeling resolutely present in the moment only, looking neither ahead nor back, and without any of the musicians listening overtly either to each other or to themselves.