Conducting in Music Games

Conducting in music is widely known as part of the classical world. To control a tightly composed piece for live performance. But, it is also used in the polar opposite of the music world - in improvisation.

A dedicated conductor may control the improvisation with gestures, signs, and body movements. For this article, I will refer to all of these as ‘gestures.’

You can start as easy as you like. The most basic commands for improvised conducting are known as ‘Basic Conducting Gestures.’ They can be seen HERE. When you want to be able to do more as an improvising conductor you might want to think about adding complex gestures.

Conducting improv can be thought of as a musical sign language that guides players in real time. Or as a form of having musicians interpret gestures and actions as a means to guide improvisation. It can be exciting to build up your arsenal of gestures.

An important point to have in mind is to keep your gestures intuitive. Remember that musicians must react to them, usually instantly, while they are improvising. You want your signals to be as clear and as easy to understand as possible.

Inspirations for a conducting system

What kind of instructions do you want to implement on improvising musicians? Listen to music that you like and think how you could create gestures to have players produce sounds from that music.

Take a look at all the symbols for music notation, all the controls on a sound mixer, or even MIDI commands. These are your musical choices. Which ones are important for you? How can you make conducting gestures out of them?

Some things to consider when conducting improv:

  • How much control do you want as a conductor?
  • How much freedom do you want the players to have?
  • How many gestures can the players/conductor remember?

Baton or freehand?

A baton is generally used to extend the conductor’s movements further to make it easier to see. This can be important when conducting larger ensembles. Batons are also known to help clarify conducted rhythm.

Freehand conducting, with no baton, gives you the freedom to use both hands and a combination of gestures using fingers as well.

Various improvising conductors have their own preferences. Lawrence ‘Butch’ Morris was almost always seen with a baton, while Walter Thompson is rarely, if ever, seen using one. Both prominent conductors for improvised music.

Come up with a list of preplanned gestures and practice them in front of a mirror. When you get into more complex gestures you will want to rehearse them with a group. Some gestures might even need to be rehearsed separately a few times until the desired effect is achieved.

Video on conducted improvisation

Notable Conductors for Improvisation

Lawrence ‘Butch’ Morris:
Walter Thompson:
Sun Ra:
John Zorn:
Adam Rudolph: /
Frank Zappa:
Adam Conrad:
Anthony Braxton:
Fred Lonberg-Holm:
Jason Hwang:

Further reference

“It’s more personal than we think”: Conducted Improvisation Systems and Community in NYC:
Conducted improvisation for children:

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