What does a Conductor Do?
December 22, 2003 5:29 AM   Subscribe

Can musically-inclined mefi-ites tell me what the conductor of an orchestra/band is supposed to do? I think at the most basic level they're supposed to keep the beat, but surely that can't be all?
posted by darsh to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Also pacing and dynamics, but mainly to whip everybody through the rehersals and be there on performance night as a visible reminder of all the points about technique and interpretation that individuals, sections and the ensemble worked (and worked and worked) on during practice.
posted by jfuller at 6:20 AM on December 22, 2003

I was in bands, orchestras and smaller ensembles for about fifteen years -- my feeling is that it's in the conductor's interpretation of the written music that the music gains emotional resonance. Playing under a gifted conductor is a truly thrilling musical experience; working with someone who perhaps isn't so talented can be tiresome and soul-killing.

I always thought of the band/orchestra as one gigantic instrument, and the conductor as the player of it. Play it right, and you get music instead of sound. Replace a conductor with a metronome, and you get a midi file.
posted by kittyb at 7:05 AM on December 22, 2003

Bear in mind that the "beat" isn't always consistent in a piece. That fellow on the podium isn't there just ticking off time like a metronome - some pieces will require a lot of push and pull of the tempo, so the conductor is the one to guide the ensemble.

The conductor also has the final say on the interpretation of the music. He needs to have an excellent sense of the history, style and moods of the piece and the capabilities of the ensemble. Everyone has their own interpretation of the music, so it's the conductor's job to make sure it's all set into a cohesive whole. Performances of pieces can vary wildly from conductor to conductor - the factors of dynamics (the ensemble as a whole or individual sections/players), articulation, style, and tone color will be different, even if the ensemble is the same.

You usually get a conductor once you hit 8-10 or more players in the ensemble. At that point, you need someone dedicated to deciding on an interpretation for a piece and then keeping everyone on track (in very large ensembles or bad halls, it is vital because not all the players can clearly hear each other.)

Many conductors are also the ones who program a concert - select the music that is to be played.

Personally, I also view the conductor as a source of performance energy - sort of a pep leader. An enthusiastic/energetic conductor will go a long way in keeping the ensemble motivated, even in the worst of circumstances.

On preview - kittyb, that's an excellent analogy.
posted by Sangre Azul at 7:07 AM on December 22, 2003

The principal conductor of a professional orchestra is also the final authority on hire/fire decisions. Musicians' unions have helped a bit with this, so that (thankfully) the days of Toscanini-like autocracies are mostly gone, but even so, whenever a new music director is brought in to a large orchestra, people tend to start worrying about their job security. Also, at least in American orchestras, the conductor functions as the primary goodwill ambassador and fund-raising figurehead for the organization.
posted by Tholian at 7:26 AM on December 22, 2003

I recently played the Lord of the Rings soundtrack in a school concert, and the beat changes every 4 bars or so, often only be 2 beats per minute. In this case the conductor pushes things forward and pulls them back to the right tempo. The conductor can also determine if one group of instruments needs to play louder/quieter (you have no idea how different an orchestra sounds when you're playing in it), as well as indicating a new section (this is more common in jazz ensembles, where you need to cue the end of a solo of unspecified length). In short, whilst it looks like the conductor is just waving his hand about whilst the musicians get on with it, in my experience musicians have no idea what is going on ;)
posted by Orange Goblin at 7:34 AM on December 22, 2003

(thankfully) the days of Toscanini-like autocracies are mostly gone

Thankfully from the point of view of the orchestra musician, but not from the point of view of the listener. Great conductors, like Valerii Gergiev today, tend to be autocratic egomaniacs. Being able to get on well with musicians is not a skill related to being able to get the most out of an orchestral score. There are lots of competent conductors today, but I suspect not many who can hold their own with Richard Strauss, Toscanini, Furtwängler, Beecham, and the other masters of the last century. (Another problem, of course, is that technical mastery is prized above moments of revelation; mistakes are more feared than boredom.)
posted by languagehat at 8:21 AM on December 22, 2003

darsh, one thing that hasn't been spelled out is that during the performance, the conductor is not just "keeping the beat" in the sense that a click track does, i.e. cueing the tempo. The conductor's arm-waving pattern also tells musicians which beat of the measure they're in. Here's a quick overview of how those patterns go.

Additionally, the conductor works in visual cues as to how the expression of the music should change, plus reminders for instruments that are about to make an entrance - reminders both of the fact of their entrace ("get ready! Here you go!") and how they should come in ("really slam this" or "lighter than you can possibly imagine"). The conductor has to keep these flowing to the musicians all just before the point they actually occur in the music. It's very tricky to do, IMHO. At least, that's what stopped me from pursuing conducting any further.
posted by soyjoy at 10:19 AM on December 22, 2003

technical mastery is prized above moments of revelation; mistakes are more feared than boredom.

I'm afraid you're right. The audition process for orchestral musicians tends to encourage this, unfortunately. It is far easier for the committee to agree on who's miscounted, played out of tune or cracked a couple of notes, than it is to agree on the emotional criteria. Frequently, by the time the conductor arrives to listen to the finalists, the committee has already gotten rid of anyone with an interesting or emotionally intense style. I have heard more than one story of a music director angrily dismissing the final candidates because they were just too boring.

I was bitter about this until I sat on a few committees--I still hate the phenomenon, but now I understand how it happens.
posted by Tholian at 11:05 AM on December 22, 2003

One of the most instructive moments of my instrumental conducting courses in college was the time we conducted the concert band through simple scales with our hands clasped behind our backs. Facial expressions and body language are often as effective as fancy hand-waving when it comes to getting 100+ people to do what you want in exactly the way you want them to do it.

This type of power can corrupt, of course.
posted by jmcmurry at 11:25 AM on December 22, 2003

I'd add to the above that conducting can also be considered to be a form of dance. Simply put, it's the communication of musical ideas through body movement, gesture, and facial expression. It was said of Bernstein that he put on a dance for both musicians and audience whenever he took the podium.

What goes on in rehearsal is analagous to coaching a sports team, with the goal being to get the best possible performance out of the players, no matter what level of skill and experience they might have. The best conductors tend to do this with minimal spoken instructions.

Although an orchestral performance is primarily a team effort, it is a rare orchestra that can succeed without the guiding hand of an experienced musical director. It doesn't have to be a baton-waver though: a suitably qualified leader (concertmaster), keyboard player or other instrumentalist can conduct while simultaneously playing his/her instrument.
posted by cbrody at 6:08 PM on December 22, 2003

Actually, only small proportion of a conductor's job is actually conducting. In addition to the main task of learning each score to be performed (it helps to know every player's part backwards and forwards), depending on the conductor's role with any particular orchestra he/she might be alse be responsible for: programming, venue selection and hire, fundraising, auditioning soloists and players (as mentioned), booking players, training choirs, co-repetion with soloists, writing programme notes, marketing, publicity, admin... well just about anything. The role varies considerably from orchestra to orchestra.
posted by cbrody at 6:21 PM on December 22, 2003

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