What Does A Conductor Do?

youcallthatwagner

Not this kind of conductor.

In music, a conductor’s position is similar to that of the director of a movie or play. The conductor applies his or her overarching conception of the way the music should sound to the piece being performed, based on his/her study and understanding of the score and the composer’s intentions.  S/he “plays” the orchestra as an instrument by simultaneously directing the performances of multiple sections, players, soloists, and/or singers with the use of physical gesture.

Mahler1

The way conductors approach and interpret a piece of music is similar to what Yogi Berra once said about baseball: “[It] is ninety percent mental. The other half is physical.”

Some of the things a conductor does:

  • Sets the tempo: shows the players how slow or fast the music should go.
  • Checks the balance: adjusts the volume of the different groups of instruments so that they support each other.
  • Cues in the musicians with the baton or hand, to let a musician or section know exactly when to begin playing.
  • Demonstrates with hand and body gestures how the notes should be played: long or short, loud or soft, etc.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was typical for the harpsichordist of the basso continuo team, or the first violinist, to conduct from his chair as he played (I use the masculine pronoun because virtually all of these musicians were men). They would lead the orchestra simply by maintaining eye contacts with the other musicians, and nodding their heads to give cues as they played. The French court composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, who worked in the court of French King Louis XIV,  conducted by striking a long, heavy staff on the ground to keep the beat. His conducting technique was the cause of his untimely death after he bashed his foot by mistake and it became infected.

lully

As the size of the orchestra expanded in the nineteenth century, it became necessary to have a conductor dedicated solely to keeping the ensemble together in order to avoid what are called, in the business, train wrecks.

trainwreck

As the orchestra continued to grow larger, conductors began holding batons — little sticks — and gesturing with them, in the hope that all the far-flung musicians of the orchestra could see their gestures and follow along with their cues.

orchestra seating chart

But what else do conductors do?

They do this.

They do this.

And sometimes this.

Can you do it?

Can a robot do it?

playwithblood

Conductors are not universally beloved by orchestral musicians. There are many conductor jokes, most of them unprintable. Here are a few of the clean ones.

Can you do this?

How would you conduct this piece — the second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? As you prepare, listen and watch this video, which indicates what to listen for.

Postscript: The great Leonard Bernstein once conducted a whole movement of a Haydn symphony using only his face.

 

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