How to conduct syncopations

Last updated Jan 3, 2022 | Published on Feb 3, 2022

Winner of a fellowship at the Bayreuther Festspiele, Mr. Griglio’s conducting has been praised for his “energy” and “fine details”. Mr. Griglio took part in the first world recording of music by composer Irwin Bazelon and conducted several world premieres like "The song of Eddie", by Harold Farberman, a candidate for the Pulitzer Prize. Principal Conductor of International Opera Theater Philadelphia for four years, Mr.Griglio is also active as a composer. His first opera, Camille Claudel, debuted in 2013 to a great success of audience and critics. Mr. Griglio is presently working on an opera on Caravaggio and Music Director of Opera Odyssey.

In these posts, we talked about rests and accents, with the need for specific motions to indicate them clearly. This concept extends to syncopations as well, which the Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians defines as “an alteration of the normal time accents of the bar brought about by the setting up of contrary accents“.

It is rather normal for conductors early in their studies to find themselves tricked by the change of accents within the bar, sometimes following the syncopation instead of remaining anchored to the basic pulse.

In this post, we’ll see a few examples of syncopated rhythms and some exercises you can practice at home.

If there is, in fact, a tendency to follow the syncopation, one way to immediately correct that would be by shortening the stroke: smaller gestures reduce the risk of being pulled towards the syncopation, especially if the tempo is on the quick side.


Another trick is to emphasize the pulse with a click of the wrist. This will force you to keep the gesture on the beat instead of the syncopation.

Nature of the syncopation

The very nature of the syncopation is to trick the listener into thinking that the regular beat has been altered while, in fact, it is still the same. The regular accents, however, are not. Every syncopation carries inherently some sort of an accent. That is sometimes written out in the music, by the composer, or not. It’s no small difference as it requires a different technical approach.

Ex.1  – Stravinsky’s Firebird

Let’s take this excerpt from Stravinsky’s The Firebird. The difference lies in the weight and delivery of the stroke. The non-accented version can be conducted with less weight and less rebound, keeping the pulse clear, and preparing the sudden forte dynamic.

We start with a rest, which implies a clear pulse on the downbeat of bar 1; but on bar 2 we have a syncopation, which is also made clearer by a pulse on the downbeat

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How to conduct syncopations - ex.1

The version with accents is the same in terms of concept concerning the rests. However, the accents on each note call for a heavier gesture and a very short rebound, if any at all. This makes the line charged with energy propelling it into every accented note.

How to conduct syncopations - ex.2

Ex.1  – Brahms’ Symphony n.2 Mov.4

Let’s take another example: an excerpt from Brahms’ symphony n.2. In this case, you can use a combination of what we’ve seen in Stravinsky.

The first gesture requires a highly charged motion, like in the second Stravinsky’s example. However, it also requires it to be longer because of the duration of the note. The second note, on the other hand, is short and without an accent.

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How to conduct syncopations - ex.3

The final result combines a forward gesture, ignited by a clear click of the wrist, followed by a “return” gesture, as in the arm returning towards your body, with a non-accented stroke. The stroke must also be stopped because of the dot on the note.

Exercise n.1

The exercises to practice syncopations are all rhythm. Pitch and dynamics are secondary in this context and remain the same throughout the exercise.

Take this simple rhythm, and start with the metronome at quarter equal to 60, only with your right hand. Pay particular attention to the clicks for the accents.
Then move the metronome to 80, and do it with your left hand.
Then to 120 with your right hand again.
Rinse and repeat with different dynamics every time: piano, mezzoforte, forte.

How to practice syncopations - ex.1

Exercise n.2

Apply the same concepts of the first exercise in terms of tempo and dynamics. Use particular care in the preparatory strokes for the beats starting with a rest

How to practice syncopations - ex.2

Exercise n.3

In this third exercise, pay attention to the strokes that carry more weight. The very first one, for instance, needs much less than the second

How to practice syncopations - ex.3

Notes

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Gianmaria Griglio is an intelligent, exceptional musician. There is no question about his conducting abilities: he has exceptionally clear baton technique that allows him to articulate whatever decisions he has made about the music.

Harold Farberman

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