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Wikipedia doesn't, but let's, assume and focus on those moments when the non-dominant hand isn't necessary to cue ictuses or indicate "dynamics, phrasing, expression, and other elements".

While some conductors use both hands to indicate the beat, with the left hand mirroring the right, formal education discourages such an approach. The second hand can be used for cueing the entrances of individual players or sections, and to aid indications of dynamics, phrasing, expression, and other elements.

  1. Wikipedia doesn't adduce the bolded phrase. Do textbooks or famous conductors that substantiate it?

  2. Under our assumption, does the bolded phrase remain true? Why?

  3. Don't many famous conductors mirror their hands? I wilfully picked Boulez as he's least probable to emote or gesture unnecessarily or rashly, yet even his arms mirror the beat sometimes. See his conducting L'Orchestre de Radio-Canada for the Rite of Spring on 5 Jun 1963) starting at 4:28.

  • 2
    Why do you think that using both hands to do the same job is any better than using one - which is clearly visible to all players? – Tim Jun 6 at 6:52
  • @tim I fear to suggest listing tasks better done with both hands :-) – Carl Witthoft Jun 6 at 14:16
  • But I guess with two batons it certainly wouldn't be twice as clear! – Tim Jun 6 at 15:20
  • You have to be able to cue sections, and give other direction while keeping a beat. Dynamics, etc. – ggcg Jun 6 at 17:43
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Mirroring hands when conducting is, in my view, almost totally pointless.

If your right hand is doing the job of indicating the beat how does doing the same thing with the left hand help at all? It doesn't; most of the time it adds nothing. What it could be doing is indicating other things - cueing as has been mentioned - which then adds to the control the conductor has over the playing (which is, after all, the point; the job of the conductor is not just keeping the beat).

Perhaps the one time when it makes sense is when the conductor needs to make a grand gesture because of a big climax or something so making mirrored movements with both hands adds emphasis.

I've not done any extensive study but my experience with a number of conductors over the last 45 or so years is that the good ones generally don't do this - they can add more by doing other things with their left hand.

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    and yet many choral conductors still mirror their motions. For some reason they don't use a baton, either. – Carl Witthoft Jun 6 at 14:15
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Indicating the beat with both hands is a waste of movement. It uses up your entire upper body and both hands.

I would venture a guess to say that formal education discourages this approach because, when you're being educated, you don't want to build this habit up as a crutch. You need to be learning how to convey other things, such as emotion and cues.

Once you are a professional conductor, you can do what you want. I've seen conductors barely move their baton, and I've seen conductors that I'm astonished don't fall off the podium. I would argue that, in the linked example, Boulez is conveying a great deal more information than mere beat when he is mirroring his hands. My first hint is that he keeps switching what his left hand is doing. Sometimes it's mirroring the right. Other times its held in a sort of "waiting" position, absolutely still. Other times it's cueing. He's using mirrored hands, but he's not slaved to them. When he needs to be able to cue, he cues.

I have noticed a tendency for choral conductors to mirror more often than orchestral conductors. I have no authority on this, but I think this may have something to do with breathing. In many cases, choral conductors are providing not just beat cues, but cues as to where to breathe as well. It may feel more natural to have the body moving symmetrically when thinking about breathing the way a singer thinks about breathing.

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  1. Brock McElheran's Conducting Technique is a classic textbook that not only discourages mirroring, it recommends getting comfortable with conducting while using the nondominant hand for all manner of nonmusical actions: turning pages, adjusting shoelaces, scribbling on the score, etc.

  2. "The man with one clock is always sure what time it is. The man with two is never sure." Duplicate messages carry the risk of confusion.

  3. Yes, some conductors mirror. But that's not a sufficient reason to emulate that habit.

  • As to #2 there - so you're recommending hiring a conductor who has three arms? – Carl Witthoft Jun 7 at 13:24
  • Sorry, I was just making an analogy about getting the (hopefully) same message from multiple independent sources (waving arms, clock hands, signals from sports coaches). – Camille Goudeseune Jun 7 at 15:36

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