What does a conductor actually do?

Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra music director Courtney Lewis conducts the orchestra during a rehearsal Wednesday, September 30, 2015 at Jacoby Symphony Hall in Jacksonville, Florida. Photo by Will Dickey

What does a conductor actually do? Alongside the inquiry about whether I work on a bus or a train, this is a question I dread. Yet it’s completely reasonable, since conducting remains an art that is at best mysterious – and at worst, suspicious – to everyone, including musicians.

One of my favourite answers is a little glib, but contains a grain of truth: we do everything except play the notes. Our job is to help the musicians play together as well as they can, and to interpret the music in a way that makes it come alive.

Before conductors begin working with an orchestra, we develop a mental picture of how we want the piece to sound. In rehearsal, we work towards realizing that.

It can be tricky for audience members, especially those unfamiliar with classical music, to grasp that most pieces can go at different speeds. For example, the Italian term for ‘fast’, Allegro, can mean anything between roughly 100 and 160 beats per minute. In reality there is nothing like that range of options because of the musical context, but a conductor does have considerable leeway when deciding the tempo at which the orchestra is going to play. Try listening to a few recordings of Beethoven Symphony No. 5 on Spotify. You’ll be amazed how different the first movement sounds under each conductor.

Our next job is balancing the orchestra, which involves organizing the volume at which the instruments play in relation to each other. Often a composer will write the same dynamic instruction for all the instruments simultaneously, and it falls to the conductor to figure out how that will work in the performance space. How one balances the orchestra changes the music’s character and emotional power enormously.

Then there are much more personal, subjective elements, like phrasing. Composers don’t give much help with phrasing on the printed page, so it’s often up to us to decide what to do. Imagine you listen to two jazz singers perform the same song. One might take time over a particular word or syllable, or hang on to a high note just a fraction longer than the others. These little differences can have an enormous impact on the style and feeling of the music. Through the movements of his hands and eyes, a good conductor can persuade his musicians to phrase the lines of a symphony or tone poem as if he were singing them himself. I can recognize Karajan’s phrasing just the way you might recognize Ella Fitzgerald’s.

A lot of these things are achieved through work in rehearsal. The conductor’s most important job is preparing the orchestra by leading rehearsals. There are usually four: morning and afternoon the two days before the first concert. During the performance, many of the conductor’s physical gestures refer to things that were organized beforehand. A wink to the oboe might allude to a conversation you had about a particular phrase, or a vigorous beat towards the brass could remind them that they tend to play late there.

Classical music is different from most other genres because it operates over long timespans. The twenty minutes of a symphonic movement ebb and flow, and it’s a conductor’s job to figure out where the most important moments of repose and arrival are so that he can underline those through time and volume. For example, if you slow down going into every musical climax, you’ll exhaust the audience and the musicians. But if you’ve figured out where the true summit is, and you move steadily through the foothills, you can make the final steps to the top even more exhilarating. The orchestral musicians are too busy playing all the notes to think about things like this, so it’s up to the conductor to guide them through the music’s structure.

We communicate through the movements of our bodies and eyes, and our bearing. Musical pulse falls into basic rhythmical patterns, often two, three or four beats in a bar. A conductor marks these out with a pattern the musicians recognize. But this is only the beginning. Simply beating time is the musical equivalent of illiteracy. The way we beat changes everything. For example, a sharp, spikey beat encourages the musicians to play with a jagged, short sound, while a sweeping, smooth beat allows the strings to play long, rich lines with all the notes joined together. A serious countenance will help encourage everyone to dig into the depths of a Bruckner symphony, while a playful smile can show the musicians how to transform a passage of Haydn from box-office death into a scintillating joke.

One final aspect of our job has caused a little controversy recently. A few weeks ago, Riccardo Muti, the brilliant music director of the Chicago Symphony commented:

‘In the last several years, we have become a visual society. So instead of listening to the music, we want to see conductors exercising on the podium, pianists that communicate with God while playing, violinists that try to impress the public with sexy attitudes… All this didn’t exist thirty years ago. Today, with television and other things, people are interested in what they see. Nobody speaks about the spiritual integrity of these artists; what they are conveying to the public.’

He’s got a point, and I’m sure we can all think of musicians whose physical excesses irritate us. But I think Muti also misses something. Audiences need help when coming into contact with symphonic music for the first time. Muti assumes everyone listening is a member of the musical cognoscenti, deeply familiar with each piece on the program. In reality, many audience members don’t trust their emotional reactions to classical music, and watching the conductor’s physical expressions can help them both to trust those reactions and to guide them through the piece. Aristocratic conductors of the past provided little such help. Maybe that’s why many of us consider Leonard Bernstein the first modern conductor.

Reprinted with the kind permission of the Florida Times-Union.

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2 thoughts on “What does a conductor actually do?”

  1. Maestro Harold Farberman often began to critique a conducting student at the Bard College Conductor’s Institute (where I was assistant principal cellist for twelve summers) by bidding the orchestra to begin a piece, and then doing nothing. After half a minute of our leaderless playing, he’d stop us, and ask the student, “Do they need you?” Showing the music through gesture was always the goal. Anything less was pointless stick waving.

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