Three Basic Questions
Once you have the basics down, there are three questions you should always ask yourself before leading a hymn:
Question 1: How many beats does each measure have?
This tells you which beat pattern to use. The quickest way to tell is to look at the two numbers at the beginning of the hymn. If the top number is 4, there are 4 beats. If the top number is 3, there are 3 beats. Take note though, if you see 6/8, there are only 2 beats per measure. See video 6 if you need a refresher on how to conduct 6/8 time.
Question 2: Is there a pickup beat?
Pickup beats were explained in video 4: Breathing and pickup beats. Not knowing a pickup beat is present might be the most common way a song leader gets confused. You should ask this question second because you won’t know where the pickup beat goes until you know how many beats are in the measure.
Question 3: Can I conduct straight through?
When using the recordings provided from headquarters, you will have to do whatever the recording does, so this is a question for when you conduct with a live pianist.
Unless you plan to stop at the end of every verse of every hymn you ever conduct—which, by the way, is perfectly acceptable—you should quickly determine whether you can conduct straight through. The general rule is this: You need to be able to sing for at least two beats and rest for one before the next verse. Here are a few examples of this reasoning in action.
p. 1, Blest and Happy Is the Man: If you conduct straight through, you would sing for three beats and rest for one. This is fine, even preferable, but stopping at the end of the verse is fine too.
Any way you stop the hymn, you must signal it clearly. If you are going to conduct straight through, you should increase the size of your pattern so that both the pianist and the congregation will know.
Let’s look at another common hymn on p. 90, O How Love I Thy Law. If you conducted straight through, you would sing for one beat and rest for one. This happens too quickly, and the congregation would become confused, so you must stop at the end of every verse for this hymn.
This principle ensures that the congregation has time to follow your lead. If you have trouble hearing whether the note is long enough to conduct straight through, here are a few general guidelines to help you make that determination:
- If the hymn is in 4/4, has no pickup beat, and has a half note or two half notes in the last measure, you should not try to conduct straight through.
- If the hymn is in 3/4 and has a pickup beat, you should not attempt to conduct straight through.
- If the hymn is in 6/8, you should not attempt to conduct straight through.
Those principles will not cover every case, but here is a complete list of hymns that you should not attempt to conduct straight through.
9, 13, 19, 20. 25, 26, 27, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 39, 45, 47, 53, 58, 62, 63, 66, 67, 68, 69, 71, 76, 78, 80, 82-83, 90, 94, 95, 97, 98 (bottom), 100, 101, 103, 106, 107, 109, 112-113, 114, 115 (bottom), 116, 117, 118, 121, 122, 123
This list is available on the website as a printable PDF.
So, to recap, our three questions are:
- How many beats does each measure have?
- Is there a pickup beat?
- Can I conduct straight through?
Most conducting errors can be prevented by answering those three questions before the hymn begins.