Recently, I received a question on Twitter from the parent of a middle school-aged musician with low vision asking about options for watching the conductor with low vision. The student said that they have trouble seeing the conductor from where their section is located, and it often leads to them not knowing when to use certain dynamics or getting lost when playing a new piece. As part of Music in Our Schools Month, here are my favorite options for watching the conductor with low vision, and tips I have used in various ensembles.
Examples of information the conductor gives
When trying to figure out how to watch the conductor with low vision, it can be helpful to know what the musician needs to watch for. While every ensemble will vary, some examples of information the conductor will give their musicians include:
- The tempo of a piece
- Cues for when to play specific notes/when to start playing
- Hand gestures for dynamics
- Soloist cues
- Other tempo increases
- Information about repeats and alternative endings for pieces
I know that there is much more to conducting than just these six things, but these are the most common cues that I’ve encountered when playing in various ensembles.
Connect an external camera to a tablet or computer
For students who may be further away from the conductor, it can be helpful to attach a webcam or wireless camera to a stand that is zoomed in on the conductor, and stream the video feed to a tablet or computer. One of my friends does this by having their tablet on a music stand and a wireless camera clipped to the top of their stand, pointing at the director. Students who use video magnifiers that support this functionality can also use their magnifiers and other attachments as well. It helps to play around with this a bit and figure out if there is a significant lag issue, but this can be a great option for students who are able to follow the movement.
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Have live or pre-recorded audio description of conductor movements
For beginning students or students who prefer to get information through sound, they can work with their director to have live or pre-recorded audio description of the conductor movements throughout a piece, so that they can have verbal cues. For example, if my professor was raising their arms at a specific measure, I could hear the phrase “crescendo to mezzo forte” or similar phrases. This can be pre-recorded by the director for practice by having them speak over a recording of the score, or done live by having them speak into a small microphone that is only heard by the student through an earbud or other small headphones.
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Make bold/large print notes in the music
One of the things that has helped me tremendously with being able to follow the conductor is making bold/large print notes in my music. In high school, I sat down with my director to figure out notes for specific parts, and typed them in large print so that I could insert the notes into the digital copies of my music. I also highly recommend making symbols bold and high-contrast whenever possible, as this can be invaluable for following along with music.
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Have a partner communicate information with gestures
In college, I am a member of a very large pep band that plays in the stands of sporting events and other large events. It’s difficult for me to see the director from anywhere due to the sheer number of people in the group and the constant movement, so my friends who stand next to me in the band will often communicate information with hand gestures against one of the bright green stands, or tap me on the shoulder for specific cues, such as when we are about to start playing after a lot of rest or if we are doing a third repeat of a song. This isn’t something I asked my friends to do, rather it came naturally as I became more familiar with the music and how the group was organized.
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Sit in a place that is within the field of vision
For students that have a limited field of vision but that don’t want to use assistive technology, it can be helpful to sit in a place that is within their field of vision so they can see the conductor and their music. This might not be an option for every musician, depending on instrumentation, but it is worth asking if this would be a good option.
Choosing the best options for watching the conductor with low vision can be challenging, and I recommend trying out a few different options before choosing which one will work the best. I hope that this post is helpful for other musicians that need to follow along with the conductor!