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Need for Beat Patterns?

Is there a reason why directors of unaccompanied vocalists need to use standard beat patterns? I've been singing for over thirty-five years, but have never followed the pattern for the pattern's sake. In other words, while I've been very responsive to the conducting, I've never tracked which beat of the measure we're on. And I've sung in some very high caliber groups, singing extremely challenging music without any problem. All the singers I've asked about this shared a similar process; none of the folks I've asked track the actual beats.
Since I'm aware of the attention given this aspect of conducting in most graduate schools (and I know that many directors spend a great amount of time conscientiously preparing a beat pattern), I'm curious...
  • Is there any research that explores this issue, perhaps comparing the performance of the same group conducted with or without standard beat patterns?
  • If you knew that the singers in your choir weren't following the beat patterns per se, would you shift your approach?
  • If you discovered that freeing your conducting from the beat pattern would result in greater musicality for the singers (and for you), would you shift?
  • If you sing in a choir, do you follow the beat patterns?
  • Do you see any reason for using standard beat patterns for unaccompanied singers? 
  • Do you conduct without standard beat patterns now? If so, what do you like about doing so? What are the challenges?
  • Or is there some reason why current conducting pedagogy exists -- "Using the standard beat pattern is the best way to ___________________________," for example. And if it is the "best way to _____________________," would it remain superior if instrumentalists were taken completely out of the picture (assuming that they follow beats more assiduously). 
All my best,
Replies (26): Threaded | Chronological
on November 28, 2010 4:44pm
I see ibe reason for using beat patterns with unaccompanied singers, to get them used to the patterns for when they DO sing with orchestra.  But I'd say that in EITHER case, chrous, orchestra, both, band, doesn't matter, the beat patterns must be secondary to making music.  And sometimes singers are counting rests and the beat pattern helps them.  Patterns are for efficiency and little else.  People know where they are.  They are like traffic lights and stop signs.  But music will sound like traffic if that's all it is.
I use a combination of standard beat patters, which on the whole are automatic with me by now, and evocative, non-pattern gestures.  Even when i conduct orchestras I often don't use patterns regularly once a tempo and meter are established (but regularly enough that everyone is comfortable).
Using the standard beat pattern is the best way to let everyone know where they are.  But it's only the first step towards making music and it's FAR from the last.
on November 28, 2010 7:54pm
Tom:  Yes, there are very good reasons to use beat patterns, but please don't confuse the two very different things involved:  the beats (or the rhythm) and the patterns.  The beat itself doesn't just belong in your hands and arms.  It has to be in your body, and it should still be obvious even if you depart from the hand pattern.  If it isn't, you're simply creating potential confusion.  You say that in 35 years you've never followed the pattern, but I'll bet anything that you HAVE followed the beat, because as a good chorister you have also internalized it.  That's why marching in unison uses clear, simple patterns, with the left foot on the downbeat (military and marching bands), or the right foot (dancers).
Is there research?  I don't know.  What I DO know is that if you are going to invent your own way of conducting it is going to be individual and idiosyncratic, and that your choir will have to LEARN what you mean by it.  Which is fine if you never work with more than one choir, but which will make it impossible to stand in front of any other choir and communicate efficiently.  And that, of course, is the whole point of the patterns.  They are standard, and therefore understood by any experienced ensemble member, any place, any time, in any music.
If I knew my singers weren't following my indicated BEAT, of course I would change my approach, but mostly in the direction of making the pattern cleaner and more clear, exactly what I would do if an emergency came up and we got separated, and never in the direction of making my beat less clear and "stirring soup."
If my performers are not singing musically I would work on the musicality, not change the beat patterns.  In this I agree completely with David Janower.  (Not surprising since we came out of the same graduate program!)  The pattern is the beginning, not the end.
When I sing I certainly do follow the conductor, but again, you're singling out the pattern rather than the beat.  But I have to add a disclaimer that I am also an instrumentalist and have long done both, so my background and training may not be that of the typical chorister.
Yes, I use standard patterns as the basis for leading unaccompanied singers, especially in music that observes bar lines.  Why would I not?
Do I sometimes drop conventional beat patterns?  Sure.  Sometimes the bar lines are NOT the music, and in renaissance music they were never part of what the singers would have seen.  In those cases I may conduct the musical phrases rather than the bar lines, BUT I would also explain what I was doing so as not to confuse my singers.  I would most certainly conduct the words and not the beats in either Anglican or Catholic choral chant.
And I would fill in your last sentence like this:  "Using the standard beat pattern is the best way to keep performers together and synchronized, and it remains superior to random flailing or conducting 'phrases' in most common-practice music whether choral, choral-instrumental, or purely instrumental."  Robert Shaw made it work rather well, and no one ever wondered where their entrances were supposed to be!!  Instrumentalists expect it as a matter of course.  So do most choristers, because it IS standard.
A useful analogy, whether it's true or not, is that your right hand is governed by your left brain and takes care of the mechanics, while your left hand is governed by your more artistic right brain, and takes care of the music.  Works for me!  And like David, it has become pretty much automatic for me.
One other comment.  Why is there emphasis on patterns in conducting classes?  Because like any physical activity, there are a myriad of possible physical responses and many of them are wrong, or non-standard, or non-communicative, or just plain awkward looking.  And those incorrect responses have to be extinguished until only the efficient and the beautiful remain, much like a violinist's bow arm.  So of COURSE conducting classes concentrate on cleaning up those responses.  No one actually learns to conduct until you finally step in front of your own group and explore how to bring the music to life.  But basic technique should be mastered by that time.
All the best,
on November 29, 2010 4:52am
Great points!  One more I discovered when my beat patterns (especially in mixed meter music) became automatic and a "no-brainer!"  MY EARS TOOK OVER! and I heard much more in my groups -- both choral and instrumental.  It also and simply gave ME more confidence.
Betty Devine
Artistic Director/Founder
The Houston Choral Society
on December 4, 2010 12:41pm
"MY EARS TOOK OVER" -- I love that!  The song is a story that must be told . . . and each story is different.  As a trained conductor, I understand the value of the beat pattern in certain songs, particularly songs with more detailed or difficult rhythms, entrances or exits.  But in a holiday song, say, like "Feliz Navidad", the same group that can sing Mozart's "Requiem" does not need as detailed a pattern; maybe not a pattern at all. If no one is really watching the conductor, does the pattern really matter?
"If you discovered that freeing your conducting from the beat pattern would result in greater musicality for the singers (and for you), would you shift?"
In a heartbeat.  The pattern is for them, not me.  If it is a hinderance, I am not doing my job.It's not all about me.
If you sing in a choir, do you follow the beat patterns?
When learning, yes.  When performing, perhaps on particularly difficult passages or for a downbeat/tempo, but not "note for note".  As a vocalist or instrumentalist, I only take the beat pattern as my guide/metronome in performance.  As a conductor, I see if my musicians need a strict pattern or merely some guidance by the time we get to performance.  Every song is different.  Every choir is different.
And then there is jazz . . .
on December 5, 2010 2:35am
Thank you, Paul!
As I conducted our Madrigal Dinner tonight, I made an effort to think about what I was doing.  My orchestra was on a stage and I was on the floor, so they had very poor sightlines to me.  I had singers spread out to my left and right, close by but along a head table.  Yet all my entrances were good and all my cues appear to have been clear.  (And I HAD to conduct because we combined two ensembles with just a single rehearsal.)
First of all, I always prepared for the next entrance with my eyes, a trick learned from Robert Shaw.  Second, I always gave a very clear and compelling upbeat to any entrance downbeat, a trick I learned from my father 'way back when I was in high school.  Yes, I used patterns MOST of the time.  (Exception one:  when the music is one-in-a-bar, I sometimes imposed a larger metapattern--"Nowell Syng We both Al and Som."  Exception two:  in 6, I have never settled on where the secondary beats on 2 and 3 go and where the secondary pulse on 4 should go--"Silent Night," instrumental "Sarabande."
Something I try to do is to find the real pulse of the music and conduct that.  In 4/4 time, sometimes the pulse is in 2 and not in 4, and conducting it in 4 bogs it down and makes it heavy.  Same thing in 3/4, when the real pulse is in 1 and not in 3.  This is a trick I learned in grad school conducting, and one that all too many high school band or choral directors never do learn.  It does put more repsonsibility on your performers, since you are not beating it out like Lully with his quarterstaff!
So I simply have to agree with those who have pointed out that there is no single way that applies to all music at all times with all ensembles, and the more flexible a conductor can be, the better.
"And then there is jazz" ... or any other style in which actual conducting is not traditionally needed or done.  If there's a rhythm section, your singers are SUPPOSED to follow the drummer, so what do you do, conduct the drummer?!!!  Musical theater is "conducted" but it is the orchestra that is truly conducted, plus a few cues for the singers which have to be worked out in advance so they stand where they can see you, but basically the conductor is a traffic cop who tries to avoid traffic jams or crashes!  Opera--does anyone reallly believe that the divas follow the conductor?!!!
But then, having worked in commercial music quite a lot, I have always believed that conducting takes the place of adequate rehearsal.  When my son sang with Chanticleer, they sang mostly without conductor, as chamber music, with specific people in charge of giving specific cues when needed for coordination.  But of course they didn't perform a program once and then put it away, they toured with two or more programs that had been learned and thoroughly rehearsed.  That's what professionals do. 
No show ensemble should be conducted, and really no jazz ensemble either, unless it's for the director's ego so he or she can look busy.  In a two-hour concert with my university show ensemble, I acted as MC and might, once, step on stage to conduct a rubato a cappella ballad, but I didn't even have to do that and sometimes allowed my choral assistant to do so, because I had rehearsed them sufficiently.  It was more for staging effect than for musical necessity.  But of course I had a good leader back in the showband and a good drummer who knew his job.
All the best,
on November 29, 2010 12:45pm
One of my favorite conducting professors used to say that one cannot really teach conducting, just survival skills.  I'm not sure that I buy into that statement completely, but I do think that beat patterns are just that - survival skills.  There is a reason that all the standard conducting texts (Green, Rudolf, name your favorite) put the pattern close to the beginning of the book.  If nothing else, the pattern will get you started.  However, as the other responders have said, one must find an individual style that suits FIRST the music, then the conductor's body.  All the fine conductors I know spend hours practicing their gesture for any given piece of music.
As for me, I pretty much use a standard beat pattern in the early learning phases of the process.  It's not that helpful to show phrase and articulation when the choir (especially an amateur one) is simply trying to find the notes and rhythms.  As the choir gets more comfortable with pitch and rhythm I take away the pattern and start to show the music.  That showing often includes a combination of beat patterns and, as the aforementioned professor would say, "pretty pictures." (meaning phrasing, articulation, etc.)  I will often use the kiss principle (keep it simple, stupid) and use standard pattern when the music is full of mixed meter or entrances that are off the beat.  
As for unaccompanied singers, for me conducting is conducting is conducting.  It really doesn't matter what type of ensemble you're in front of.  As long as the gesture communicates the music in a coherent way you've done your job.
As a final thought, every single conductor KNOWS that it is not our job to play time cop.  It is ultimately the ensemble's responsibility to keep the tempo once established.  However, how many of us actually follow through with this ideal?  I'd hate to guess.  I'll admit to falling into the "time cop" mode once in awhile.  What I've found is that taking away the beat patterns not only force me to improve my musical leadership and conducting, but force the ensemble into keeping the established tempo for themselves.  It may not be that way for others, but that's been my experience.
For what it's worth... 
on November 29, 2010 12:51pm
Your concern over beat/meter/tempo patterns is shared by many, and is a concern that has led to a lot of research. A common conclusion is that conductors and conducting courses focus on patterns to the detriment of expressive conducting, with investigations of Laban, acting, mime, kinesics, metaphorical gestures, and other approaches aimed at breaking free of metronomic beat patterns and becoming more expressive. Interesting findings are (1) that musicians to the right may respond differently than musicians to the left of the conductor because we conduct patterns in one hand and expression in the other, and (2) expressive conducting may actually keep musicians more synchronized than metronomic patterns, my guess because expressiveness changes and you have to pay attention more sharply.
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Boardman, S. (2000). A survey of the undergraduate instrumental conducting course in region seven of the National Association of Schools of Music. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Georgia.
Byo, J. L. (1990). Recognition of intensity contrasts in the gestures of beginning conductors. Journal of Research in Music Education, 38(3), 157-163.
Chapman, C. C. (2008). An investigation of current instruction practices for the undergraduate instrumental conducting student concerning left hand technique and facial gestures. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Washington.
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Manternach, J. N. (2009). The effect of conductor head and shoulder movement and preparatory gesture direction on upper body movement of individual singers. Unpublished masters thesis, University of Kansas.
Mathers, A. (2009). The use of gestural modes to enhance expressive conducting at all levels of entering behavior through the use of illustrators, affect displays and regulators. International Journal of Music Education, 27, 143-153.
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Toney, H., Jr. (2000). Expressive ensemble conducting and performing: A qualitative case study of one conductor's practice. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Wis, R. M. (1993). Gesture and body movement as physical metaphor to facilitate learning and to enhance musical experience in the choral rehearsal. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Northwestern University.
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on November 29, 2010 12:54pm
Here's a joke related to the problem you pose, told by Charlene Archibeque at our state ACDA-MI conference, October 2010. How many conductors does it take to screw in a light bulb? Nobody knows because nobody watches.
on November 29, 2010 1:10pm
Another perspective to consider is the positive effect using consistent beat patterns will have on your own sense of the organization of the music and score memorization.  I think this is especially important when conducting mixed meter passages.  A good example would be the Nimrod section of Britten's "Rejoice in the Lamb", in which memorizing and consistently conducting your beat patterns provides an invaluable aid in remembering the structure and direction of the music.  Another example from the same piece, "For the instruments are by their rhymes", which is a succession of quick 3/8 bars, gives the opportunity to organize your beats into macro-patterns, and also aids with the memorization of this passage.  It goes without saying that ensemble singers and especially players will feel much more comfortable if they know they can rely on your consistent approach to applying a visual organization to your conducting through your beat patterns.  
on November 29, 2010 5:38pm
As a singer rather than a conductor, I hate it when a conductor doesn't give a clear down beat, i.e. distinguish the 'down' (first) beat of a bar from the other beats he is giving. Yes, a lot of the time it doesn't matter, but sometimes one becomes aware that the choir is not together, and I am not arrogant enough to assume that I am necessarily right: in this situation, I look for the conductor's down beat to get me back on track. It at least narrows the choice down.
on November 30, 2010 12:27am
Great, Steve.
In just a few words, you nailed it. Instrumentalists want a down beat more than anything else. First of all, if they are not playing for a number of measures there they sit, counting; counting down beats. Between ones, either hand can gesture the music. It is convenient to cue the right side of the orchestra with the right and the left with the left hand. If a group is well rehearsed, little conducting should be necessary. That assumes that everyone is counting and knows what to do when.
 I know Tom's question had mainly to do with a cappella singing. Again, the better rehearsed the choir is, the less you have to comduct. Which leads me ( to say that (in my opinion) conducting should be reminding of what has been thoroughly planned and rehearsed. No podium miracles happen!
I, personally, prefer that singers use music. It reminds of the myriad of details which have been discussed and keeps them engaged in the performance.
Mixed meter scores do require a little more attention to gestural detail, but even there, familiarity allows more expressive conducting.
What about the fact that some groups sing conductorless? Think Chanticleer. Think Orpheus.
Two cents,
Ed Palmer
on November 30, 2010 2:42pm
Hi Tom,
In terms of what people actually do, research for my book* showed that:
  • Pretty much all the directors I observed used pattern some of the time, though there was significant variation in how continuously/intermittently and how orthodox in shape
  • Traditions that rehearsed and performed from memory saw the least use of pattern (both in terms of continuity and standardisation)
  • Traditions in which the singers also used a lot of rhythmic movement as they sang also saw relatively little pattern-use
  • Traditions in which sight-reading/quick-study was more important showed the most use
And it makes sense that the less time you have to absorb the music before performance, the more conventionalised you need your signals to be.
But patterns are not just about the traffic-control dimension of music - they also encode a lot of qualitiative information about musical structure and meaning. So if a director's gestures are being perceived as boxed-in or inflexible, it may not necessarily be the pattern per se that's the problem - rather the way they're thinking about the music is focusing too much on the smaller units, and not exploiting the immense expressive potential that exists within the standard patterns.
To answer your specific question about unaccompanied singers, I think the degree to which pattern is needed depends a lot on the specific repertoire. To generalise: if you're performing music from the 18th or 19th centuries, conducting patterns encapsulate some important information about rhythmic character that free-form styles would fail to capture so well. Renaissance music works well with the simpler approach of tactus now as when it was written. Art music of the 20th century will often want pattern, but pieces derived from popular traditions may not, and may even find that the weight of the downbeat misrepresents the rhythmic character.
Good question, btw. I'm going to enjoy following up some of the literature you've flushed out in this thread!
*Choral Conducting and the Construction of Meaning: Gesture, Voice, Identity, Ashgate 2009
on December 2, 2010 2:23am
Hi, Tom.  Hope all is well with you.
Are you familiar with the Heckarewe method?  A pattern resembling a circle, it is used when a conductor and/or singers ask the question "Where the heck are we?"
I go in an out of patterns, rebarring where appropriate.  There always must be pattern of some sort, or no one would follow. However, for singers, the text must create the pattern, even if our metrical "time keeping" stays relatively the same.  One thing that has revolutionized the way I approach gospel pieces is to rebar them according to "two-s and three-s."  With a preponderance of dotted eighth notes followed by a sixteenth tied to another eighth note, there is little doubt that at times gospel music is at least in polymeter (with the rhythm section as the ground meter).  Many times the accompaniment follows the textual "syncopated" stresses, thus creating a meter that transcends the typically common meter the piece is written or felt in.  For a conductor to stick to a 4 pattern for pieces like this is antithetical to the "feel" of the music.  Yes, learned musicians in the choir are going to be counting all the sixteenth making sure that they all are given equal measure, but if those "syncopated" riffs don't transcend the meter to _become_ the pulse, the music is most likely lacking in vitality.
A good case in point is Hogan's "Music Down in My Soul."  It is full of rhythmic stress that transcends the transcribed metrical pattern.  For instance, "Love in my heart...Peace in my soul..." in the song, when conducted in 4 leaves only "Love" on a "stressed" beat, but "heart" is certainly the center of that phrase, which arrives on the 1/16 previous to the "down beat."  However, if you use a pattern of three (three sixteenths, 2-eighths, 2-eighths; essentially 3+2+2), there ends up being much more life in it and less chance of it sounding clinical with some words cut short because an anticipated "off-beat."
This is hard to explain without seeing it on paper, and is a bit of a tangent from your post, but suffice it to say that departures from studied patterns of meter should be planned and intentional.  This is not to cut off spontaneity in music, but an effort to translate meaning from score in as clear, concise, and efficient a manner as possible. (Thus avoiding the Heckarwe or Hellarewe methods.)  This does not relieve the conductor from knowing and being a master of pattern, but in fact increases the responsibility to demonstrate effectively that choral music can transcend metrical pattern.  If he or she has to explain it verbally, then the departure has gone too far from what is clear, concise and efficient.
This allows a quicker transfer (at least in my mind) of the "beat" coming off of the page and into the performers' minds and muscles, as John Howell talked about, in a eurhythmic, Dalcrozian manner.  When that happens in all singers, next we tackle world peace.
I have no research to quote, and nothing more than my personal experience and opinions to offer, so take it for what it's worth!  
Hope you are much warmer in Cali than we are here in Minne.  Be well.
on December 3, 2010 4:05pm
Hi Tom,
I wonder if everyone has the same understanding of the term "beat pattern".    I suspect that to many, "beat pattern" refers to the diagrams in books such as those by Elizabeth Green and Max Rudolf that trace an outline of motions and indicate the places at which the ictus occurs.  Often the ictus is just that, a sudden flick or push that shows an accent on the beat. That type of "beat pattern" is useful for certain kinds of music where each beat needs such strict emphasis.  Performers are forced to ignore such motions when it is contrary to the music being performed.   Perhaps that is what you experienced: motions which were incongruent with the music.
The work of Hideo Saito in analyzing gestures provides important insight into how gestures convey musical meaning and elicit sounds.   Simply put, going to a place in a beat pattern is not as important as how one gets there.  To elaborate, most conducting gestures have four parts: before-point motion, beat point, after-point motion and the secondary point.  I choose to use the term "beat point" rather than ictus because the term ictus literally means "metrical stress" and comes from Latin meaning a stroke or thrust.  We know that not all music requires the beats to be stressed.  We also know that the downbeat is likely the easiest to show clearly.   Saito's work reveals the critical importance of the secondary point, that place in space in time where the motion is the slowest, as the key to timing gestures for clarity and artistry.  He shows that the use of acceleration and deceleration in gestures facilitates the clarity of the beat point and allows performers to anticipate where it will occur because of the secondary point.  
Timing of the secondary point requires training.  The most important skill is the arm drop so that acceleration is accomplished by the force of gravity.  Conductors using such technique are less likely to experience muscular problems.   With appropriate training it is possible to place the beat point anywhere in the field of beat depending upon the musical purpose. 
Indeed, if the performers are not responding to the gestures they must be changed.   It is a primary responsibility of the conductor to make it easy for the performers to perform together.  I'm happy to share Prof. Saito's ideas with any who are interested.
Wayne Toews
on December 4, 2010 9:02am
It's always brilliant when someone challenges the prevailing paradigm! I would like to point out two things.
1. Beat patterns mostly organise movements in sequences of directions. What are the benefits of this activity?
- the performers can follow where the conductor is. Typical benefit for instrumentalists who only see one part of a complex score. But also valuable in any choral score of rhythmic complexity. Also very useful when there is confusion in the performance.
- the movements of the conductor organise the musical material. Beating in four creates units of four beats. I am fairly certain this affects both the performers' way of perceiving the music. And mostly this is beneficial.
- having a common gestural language is a lingua franca - one can communicate with musicians from different parts of the world surprisingly well without any 'translation' of one's gestures.
2. Using a beat pattern does not imply less expressivity. A beat pattern only dictates the directions of the movements of one hand (arm). It does not make the beating hand a metronome and it certainly does not hinder the rest of the conductor's body from freely expressing the music.
Of course, beat patterns are a modern invention and are probably best suited for classical music born during their existence.
And Ed, I disagree: podium miracles happen all the time. Especially when the performers are well prepared and the conductor has a rich vocabulary of gestures.
on December 4, 2010 10:00am
Hi, everyone.
I, for one, think that it's extremely important to show a clear pattern most of the time... although of course occasionally you need to break out of it for a particular musical reason.  Why NOT do it?  My largest gripe with "singers" (if I may be so rude) is that they often don't know how to work in a professional manner.. you hire a so-called professional singer and you literally have to teach him his notes because he never learned how to read music properly.  This is of course probably the main reason people often differentiate between "singers" and "musicians" - because they expect to have to treat the singer in a completely different way... I know a "real musician" would expect me to show a beat pattern while conducting (OK - I know there are huge exceptions in the orchestral world... I guess you can cheat when you're famous).
When I get hired somewhere as a professional singer, I am ready to take instruction and direction just as if I was playing the clarinet or whatever... I expect that director to assume that I can sight read almost anything put in front of me, and I in return expect the director to be able to do his job really well - to give me a clear no-nonsense beat so that everyone is on the same page, figuratively and literally.
I think it's not difficult to show lots of emotion and musicality without breaking out of your clear beats - you don't have to beat like a robot.  
I feel we shouldn't have to treat choirs any differently than orchestras - what they lack in training you should teach them.
I'm telling you - take an hour or so to properly train your choir to follow your beat, no matter what crazy tempos you may decide to do.  When I do choir workshops where I see that the group's main conductor hasn't trained them to follow his beat, I take as much as half an hour just having the group count out loud 1-2-3-4 on my beat while I wildly vary the tempo, fermatas, ritardanto, accelerando, etc.
After that sort of training, you won't believe how much better the choir follows your gestures and it gives you real leeway to do real musical things and make last-second performance decisions in concert... just as if you were playing, say, the piano - this at least is my experience with a handful of amateur groups.  Just remember never to conduct with your mouth or they will never ever look at your gestures (-;
If the choir doesn't have an idea of where 3 is and you feel a nice moment coming up in concert and want to have them hold the note on 3 for a few more moments.... how can you possibly do it otherwise? I would actually love to hear, because I don't know how.
on December 4, 2010 2:43pm
I have to disagree with only one thing that Bragi wrote:  "I feel we shouldn't have to treat choirs any differently than orchestras - what they lack in training you should teach them."
The difference is not one of training (although much too often that is a factor).  It's one of performance practice and music engraving traditions.  PERFORMANCE PRACTICE:  Orchestral musicians can often spend from a few bars to many bars counting rests, and then have to make an accurate entrance with or without a cue from the conductor.  It is absolutely essential that there be no question where the downbeats fall, and a conductor who engages in modern dance is inviting disaster!  ENGRAVING:  It was not always so, but today we expect singers not to read from an individual part, but from a choral score that not only shows all the voices but a reduction of the accompaniment.  When the singers can SEE what is happening, even during their rests, they can take greater responsibility for accurate entrances.  My wife once sang in the chorus for a Poulenc opera, and the "choral" scores had nothing but the choral parts, no orchestral cues.  It made their accurate entrances extremely difficult, in terms of rhythm and even in terms of pitch.
All the best,
on December 5, 2010 3:08am
To focus on the primary points of the discussion:
1)  To me there is no difference between how I conduct accompanied vs. unaccompanied singers.
2)  I conduct Renaissance music in a very different way than other style periods.  I frequently rebar the music, and often have the singers analyze their rhythms (not metric).
3)  I conduct jazz band still differently, emphasizing offbeats and accents.  I use beat patterns when I need clarity, and in transitions.
4)  I conduct small groups differently than large groups.
5)  Three things I look for in a conductor, including myself:
      a)  A downbeat
      b)  A clear musical concept
      c)  A sense of phrase, and a sense of "swoop" = le fil d'or = getting from beginning to end = telling the story
While I use a beat pattern, my goal is to pass the rhythm, and indeed the musical concept, to my chamber chorus, then to stay out of their way.  If we're honest with ourselves, we know that our job should be to set the tempo, remind the singers of what they know, and make sure they stop at the same time!
I often rehearse with my hands in my pockets (really!), so that I make sure the singers are in control of both the rhythm and their musical destiny.  My job is to listen.  (Thank you, Bob Page.)
I think I need to add a fourth thing to what I look for in a conductor:  d)  A sense of joy and discovery.
Have fun,
Ray Fahrner
Cambridge Chamber Singers
on December 5, 2010 3:17pm
Thanks to everyone for these thoughtful responses and excellent resources!
Use of patterns depends on the conductor's preparation (training, score study prep, rehearsal practices. and experience.)
The music determines the gesture.  By music, I don't mean the printed page. Like others, there are times when I've done rebarring, even with contemporary pieces, particularly when the composer/editor decides to make the music "easy to read." There are times when a downbeat runs counter to the overarching phrase, even though the score shows a downbeat. 
Thanks again!
Susan Nace
on December 6, 2010 9:04pm
Classical conducting patterns apply most comfortably to certain styles and periods of music, not to all music.  
I use the patterns when they suit the music, but at times my amateur choir follows better if I just keep the beat for them with my baton and use the other hand for cut-offs, expression, etc.
On the other end of the spectrum, Stile Antico sing magnificently without any conductor at all.

on December 7, 2010 5:23pm
Ray, you brought GOOD STUFF to this thread -- things that many of us had not expressed but certainly share with you.  I think your final points are right on the money --

"our job should be to set the tempo, remind the singers of what they know, and make sure they stop at the same time"
 If I teach them well, the job is not hard.
"the singers are in control of both the rhythm and their musical destiny"  I can't sing the concert for them . . . it doesn't really matter WHAT I do. After a certain point, it's all up to them.
"My job is to listen"  . . . and lead by example.  Teach them to listen.
Too many conductors are ego-filled and miss the point that the concert is about the artistry and the music, not about how good a "stick man" they can appear to be . . . remember that a blind man can see no pattern at all.  
on December 15, 2010 6:17pm
I've always made the joke about choral conducting that "patterns are for the weak."  Truth is, everything is in 2 or 3 and other than that your hands have to many other things to be doing with a choir.  The only time I really go back to a specific pattern is if there is a period of difficult counting and the choir really needs to see exactly where all of the beats within the measure are.  Other than that, they really just need a good sense of the downbeat and and then phrasing, dynamics, etc....
on December 17, 2010 5:43pm
The best of the season to all,
I'm curious to know what those of you who choose not use beat patterns do instead?  Does the focus move from your hands to your face or body?  Do you place the beat-points in other locations?  What other changes do you make to your gestures?
Wayne Toews
on December 18, 2010 1:43pm
In undergraduate school I had a conducting professor obsessed with the conducting techniques of Arturo Toscaninni ... at that time thought to be the greatest of conductors.  He carefully observed films of the old man conducting the NY Philharmonic and the NBC Symphony and determined that instead of the usual patterns, he made a pendulum swing in different directions to indicate the number of the beat, but that the actual tactus was always in the middle of the pattern.  He was sure this would lead to musical nirvana.  Maybe it did for him.  But not everyone.
This story to illustrate the fact that Toscaninni modified the usual pattern for his own purposes.  What he did certainly made for impressive performances of the various works in his repertoire.  I think the essential lesson I learned from this was that conducting is in its essence the imposition of the conductor's will on the gathered musical organization ... be it an orchestra or a choir or a kazoo choir.  I have found that beginning with the standard conducting patterns is an important step toward this goal ... but the music must be clearly defined in your own mind ... what you would like to hear and then the motions of the conducting nuanced to make that concept happen in sound and be clearly conveyed to your group.  Each conductor works out the gestures that best get his/her intentions across to the group.
Perhaps more germane to the actual question is that it's important to start with the basic patterns ... and choral singers need to be familiar with these for obvious reasons.  Also they have proved over centuries to be effective ways of conveying a conductor's intentions.  When choral conductors 'mold the sound' or whatever they think they are doing when they abandon standard conducting practice, they are doing their singers no favor, and reinforcing the idea that there are musicians and then there are singers! 
on December 19, 2010 2:34am
Thank you all for your wonderfully rich responses! Great to hear from old friends as well.
Happy Holidays to you all!
on December 19, 2010 6:31pm
It is good to see this renewal of interest in your question.
It was a my privilege to study with Richard Lert at the American Symphony Orchestra's Institute for Orchestral Studies. He was in his 90s at the time.
He said, "Don't be a time beater, conduct the music!" One can think about that a long time. We all know that a sense of pace (togetherness) must        be maintained, punctuated by crucial cues, shadings, rubato etc., etc.! We are as varied as our names in our conducting and I think that's good.
I, too, have enjoyed the responses you garnered.
Merry Christmas
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