Conducting Music for Beginners

There is a tradition in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that a person leads or conducts the congregation in the singing of hymns. People who have a background in music usually don’t have a problem doing this, but leading music can be a serious challenge for persons who have little experience in music. This page presents a plan that will enable these people to successfully conduct music and thus contribute to the spirituality of the meeting. The plan can be presented in 5 classes of 30-40 minutes each, although some students may require additional time. The people only have to learn a few simple concepts of music, and they will be able to stand before the congregation with full confidence that they know what they are doing. So, let’s begin!

Conducting hymns

Preparation

The instructor of the class will need a CD player and the CD-set of the Church Hymns. These CDs can be music-only or music with voices. The CDs are available from the church Distribution Center and from typical LDS bookstores. The instructor should have mastered the skills taught by this plan. Students will each need a hymn book.

During the classes, several hymns will be used. In most cases, the hymn # and names of the hymns are not specified in this plan. This is to allow the instructor to choose hymns that will be appropriate for the class members. However, instructors are cautioned to use hymns that are well-known to the class members, hymns that are simple and easy to learn.

First Class

Welcome the students to the class. Explain that they will learn how to conduct church music. Caution them that these classes are for beginners, and that they will need to learn additional skills if they are to conduct a wider variety of music.

The goal of the first class is to have the students “feel” the rhythm of the hymns.  Play several hymns that are simple and well-known. Don’t mention anything about the hymns, time signatures, or measures. Just play the hymns and ask the students to move their hand up and down in rhythm with the music. This movement of their hand is referred to in this plan as “beating” the music. Tell them to mimic what you are doing; as the music plays, you “beat” the rhythm of the music with your hand.

After the students have listened to two or three hymns and have tried to beat the rhythm, stop the music and ask the students if they are feeling the rhythm or pulse of the music. Play two or three more hymns, but, depending on the progress of the students, don’t beat the music with the students. Watch them to see if they are beating in time with the music.

If some of the students are not beating the rhythm correctly, look them in the eye to get their attention and then smile and use your hand for a few seconds to beat the music. When the students are following your hand movements correctly, stop beating and see if the students continue their hand movements correctly. Continue doing this until all the students are able to feel the rhythm of the music and beat the rhythm correctly. For this class, choose simple hymns that are well-known. Choose music with time stamps of 3/4 or 4/4, although don’t mention the time stamps to the students; that will come later.

Conclude the class by telling the students they have learned the most important part of conducting church hymns — getting the congregation to feel and sing the rhythm of the music, just as you have done that with the students. Suggest that during the week, the students practice beating the rhythm by going to the Interactive Music Player at lds.org and listening to and beating several well-known hymns. The web address of the Player is

http://lds.org/cm/display/0,17631,4996-1,00.html#

Second Class

Begin the class by complementing the students on their progress of being able to beat the music. As a review of the last class and to get their minds warmed up, have the students beat a common hymn.

Have the students open their song book to hymn #301, I am a Child of God. Have them notice that the music written in the book consists of staffs or groups of 5 lines. Each line of words is grouped with two staffs. The top staff is for the women (higher voices) and the lower staff is for men (lower voices), although many men sing the melody which is written in the upper staff. Explain that conductors, whether they are men or women, usually sing the melody as they conduct. This allows persons who don’t know the songs to lip-read the conductor.

Introduce the students to the measure. Tell the students that music is divided into “measures”, and a measure is bounded by vertical lines. Explain that the rhythm of music comes from the repetition of measures. Explain that the first note of a measure is often given a bit more emphasis than the other notes, and it’s this emphasis that gives the music its rhythm. Explain that this note is always played when the conductor’s hand is moving down. Because of this, that hand movement is known as a downbeat.

Ask the students to  pick out the measures and give you the first word of each measure. Do this for several measures. (I, God, he, here). Ask them to notice that the whole song is a group of measures, one after the other.

Next, tell them to look at the beginning of the staff for the two numbers 4 and 4, where one 4 is above the other 4. Explain that those numbers are called the time stamp. The top number is the number of “beats” in a measure, and the bottom number is the type of note that is one beat. Explain that the type of note is not discussed in these classes and that they can learn about notes later on.

Explain that most hymns are 3/4 or 4/4, and the rhythm of the song consists of the repetition of the 3 or 4 note measures. Explain that if they are asked to conduct music in church, they should (in the beginning at least) choose 3/4 or 4/4 songs, because those songs are the easiest to conduct.

Explain that the people called to accompany the music on a piano or organ know about music. Thus, the students can reverse the roles of the conductor and accompanist. They can listen to the accompanist, just as they are listening to a CD in this class, and beat the music played by the accompanist.

Explain that they have been moving their hands up and down but it is easier if they have a slight sideways movement of their hands, as if they were making the number 8 lying on its side, a lazy-8.

Conclude the class by having the students beat lazy-8 to the music. Give them a hymn # and ask them to find that hymn in their song books and to tell you if the song is 3/4 or 4/4. Then have them beat that hymn. Do this for several hymns, depending on how much time is left in the class.

Third Class

Congratulate the class on their progress in becoming conductors. Tell them that today, they will get experience following the written music in the book while beating the music with their hands. Play several hymns and ask the students to refer to their song books and follow the progress of the music through the measures while they continue to beat the music. After a song is chosen, ask the class if the song is 3/4 or 4/4. Depending on the people in your class, you might want to have them pick the songs from the book and to tell you if each song is 3/4 or 4/4. Don’t have them sing while they follow the measures through the music.

If the students ask whether a song should be played fast or slow, tell them the music does give suggestions for the speed of the music, called the tempo, but they can ignore tempo. Tell them to let the accompanist choose the tempo and just beat the music that is played by the accompanist.

Fourth Class

Explain that accompanists play a small part of the music as an introduction to the song. This introduction is not beat by the conductor, and the congregation does not sing during the introduction. Explain that the introduction begins with a small symbol above the top staff that looks like the upper left corner of a square and ends with a small symbol above the top staff that looks like the upper right corner of a square. Have the students look at #301 and locate the introduction. Have them notice that the first part of the introduction is at the beginning of that song and the remainder of the introduction is at the end of the song.

Explain that it is traditional that the conductor does not beat the last note of the last line to be sung. Instead, hold your hand in the air while that note is played and sung. Listen to the accompanist, and when it sounds like the accompanist is going to stop, make a small loop with your hand and quickly bring your hand down as a sign that the song has ended. Demonstrate this to the students.

Explain that today you will lead the first song while the class beats the song AND sings the song. (be sure and observe the introduction). Then tell the class that they will get real-life experience conducting songs before the class. As a class member conducts a song the rest of the class will beat the song AND sing the song. Remind the students that conducting a song consists of beating the rhythm with their hand AND their following the music through the measures to the end of the music. Have students take turns conducting songs. Be sure they observe the introduction to the songs and that they end the song in the proper way.

Fifth Class

Tell the students that this is the last day of the class and they have just two more things to learn about church hymns. Many songs do not begin with the first note of a measure, or on a downbeat. They begin with the last note of a measure, and the conductor’s hand always goes up when this note is played. This movement of the conductor’s hand is known as an upbeat. The students can tell if a song begins on the last note by looking at the size of the first measure. If the first measure is shorter than the size give by the top number of the time stamp, that first measure consists of the last note of a measure, and that note is beat with their hand going up rather than going down, that is, on a upbeat. Have them look at hymn #6, Redeemer of Israel. The first measure consists of one note, and they will begin beating the song with their hand going up. Then beginning with the second measure, they will beat the remaining measures in the song.

Demonstrate how hymn #6 should be beat, and have the class beat it with you until they do it correctly. Have the class beat several hymns that begin on the upswing of their hands. Rather than you lead the class and they follow you, have members of the class take turns leading the music while the other students follow him or her.

The last thing the students need to learn is that some notes are held longer that one might expect. This is called a Fermata, and the symbol used in music is a half-circle with a dot in it. For example, the last line of hymn #301, I am a Child of God has a Fermata above the word “do”. The Fermata means you give that note a slight pause, say twice as long as you would normally beat that note. Tell the congregation and accompanist that you are pausing for a moment by holding your hand stationary in the air. Then, you continue the next note on an upbeat. Make the upbeat noticeable so the congregation and the accompanist will know that the music is continuing. As a suggestion, until you’ve had more experience conducting hymns, choose songs that have no Fermatas.

As the class comes to an end, ask the students to use the Interactive Church Music Player to practice leading church music, and insure them that they will do well when they stand before the congregation. Thank them for the opportunity you’ve had of enjoying music with them. Leading music is very rewarding, because you are helping the congregation to absorb the spiritual messages of the music.



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17 Responses to Conducting Music for Beginners

  1. amerslou says:

    This is a great guide! As a musician, I have been asked to help teach others how to conduct but didn’t even know where to start. Thank you!

    • Allen says:

      Thanks for your nice comment! I’m not much of a musician (I did play clarinet in Jr. High, but I just learned the clarinet-fingering and didn’t learn many music principles), and I’ve done a lot of conducting in Priesthood Meetings and Sacrament Meetings. Many Bishops like to have Aaronic Priesthood boys conduct an opening song in Priesthood meeting, and those boys usually know little about music and often times don’t conduct the songs very well. In writing this plan, I’ve tried to teach conducting music from the viewpoint of a beginner who knows nothing at all about music.

  2. Angie says:

    Thank you for this outline! I am going to be teaching the Young Women in my ward about music and conducting…this is going to be a great help!!! Thanks again!

  3. Boitumelo says:

    This will help me a lot coz i will be teaching that this Saturday and now i know what to focus on… Thanks a lot

  4. Angela Craven says:

    Very well done! I am grateful for your work it has helped me to fill in last minute for a Stake RS sister’s meeting on teaching the Sister’s here in England to feel comfortable conducting music.

  5. Allen says:

    I have a new calling — conducting the opening song for Priesthood Meeting and teaching Aaronic Priesthood boys how to conduct. I’ll get to see if my plan really works …

  6. Jolynn says:

    Thank you so much. I am teaching a class to the young women in a few weeks and this is absolutely perfect!

  7. Dr. Prof. Edward Charles. says:

    A good elementary introduction: but where to from there? For advanced conducting, there is a FREE 10 Part course “CONDUCTING, YES! Anyone can do it – OR CAN THEY?” Other Articles include “LEARNING TO LEARN” series &, “SINGING”, “BRASS BANDS”, “MOTIVATION”, “INSPIRATION”, “GO FOR IT!”, “DESPONDENCY”, “HEALTH”, “LONGEVITY” “HUMOUR” etc. etc. 30 page CATALOGUE with synopses ALL FREE! edwardandjenny@hotmail.com

  8. Mandy says:

    How do you figure out how to start a hymn when the first note looks like it could start on an up or a down beat?

    • Allen says:

      Hi Mandy,

      In church hymns, there are only two ways that a hymn begins, either with the first note of a measure or with the last note of a measure. This is explained in the Fifth Day. If the first note of the hymn is the first note of a measure, the conductors hand goes up in preparation for that first note, and the first note is always on a downbeat. On the other hand, if the first note of a hymn is the last note of a measure, that note is sung on an upbeat of the conductors hand. I usually hold my hand in the air during the last two or three beats of the introduction. If the first note is a down-beat, I move my hand upward and begin singing on the subsequent downbeat. However, if the first note is to be sung on an upbeat, I usually have my hand down in preparation for that first note which is on the upbeat

      If the song begins on an upbeat, notice that the last measure of the hymn is usually short one note, and that missing note is the first note of the hymn.

  9. Ramona says:

    I have been ask to serve as the music director in my Ward. I love music, I love to sing and I enjoy the hymn of the Church. There is only on problem; I don’t read music and I don’t know how to conduct. I like to take on this challenge but were do I begin and what is a good way to learn the notes? Thanks. Ramona

    • Allen says:

      Hi Ramona, you and I are similar in our lack of musical technique. Conducting congregational singing of church hymns is relatively easy. You only need to know a few things about reading music, and as long as you have a good pianist or organist, you’ll do fine. I conduct the opening song in PH meeting, and we meet in a room without a piano or organ. Rather than get a keyboard from the ward library, I use a CD player from the ward library and the set of CDs that have all the hymns from the hymn book.

      There are just a few things about reading printed music that you need to know in order to conduct congregational singing: identification of measures, time stamps of 4/4 or 3/4 (stay away at first from other time stamps; choose music that is easy for you to conduct), identification of full notes, half notes, quarter notes, and eighth notes.

      Let your accompanist set the tempo and follow that tempo until you feel comfortable varying the tempo. While at home, use the interactive music player at lds.org to play the hymns you are considering using, and practice conducting that music. Study the arm movement patterns given in the hymn book and become familiar with the patterns for 4/4 and 3/4. Be aware that many if not most ward members ignore the conductor and just sing the song as they have always sung it. This means that you are there as an actor, full of confidence and looking good in your calling, when in reality you are really following your accompanist in conducting the music. Also, be aware that as you gain experience in conducting congregational singing, you will begin to set the tempo, and your accompanist will follow your lead.

  10. stephen samorin says:

    Thank you for the outline of teaching the basics…this could be of great help to me to help our song leaders do a proper conducting…

  11. benjamin elijah says:

    Hi, how do i get the CDs with hymns from hymn book?

    • Allen says:

      If you live in the Utah/Arizona and maybe California area, it should be available from a church Distribution Center. Otherwise, check http://lds.org or http://deseretbook.com and maybe http://seagullbook.com lds.org has a nice interactive song page that allows you to select a song, specify the parts to be played, and the tempo to be used. You also can change the key if you want.

  12. Rezha Rhutsu says:

    Do we need both hands to conduct?

  13. Allen says:

    I don’t use (frequently don’t have) a music stand to hold my music, so I use one hand to hold the book and the other hand to lead the music. This works fine for church music. Many people use a music stand to hold their music, and they thus have both hands available to lead the music. This is fine. One technique I’ve seen used in church music is to lead with one hand and use both hands at the end of the music. Directors of church choirs frequently do this. Just do what ever works for you!

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