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What Does a Conductor of an Orchestra Actually Do?

A conductor conducting an orchestra with a baton.
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  • Originally Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Revised By: Wanda Marie Thibodeaux
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 04 April 2014
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A conductor of an orchestra has the primary responsibility of preparing the musical ensemble for public presentations. This requires the interpretation of musical works and real-time communication of those interpretations to musicians via arm gestures. Generally speaking, it is expected that the conductor will learn an entire score rather than its individual parts. He or she will generally be required to carry out a number of significant business duties, as well, which can drastically affect whether the orchestra will do well. Many orchestra leaders work as educators and regularly work to expand their own expertise through advanced degrees, seminars, workshops, and similar events.

Leading the Orchestra

The most important thing a conductor of an orchestra does is lead symphony members through rehearsals and performances. He or she accomplishes this in part by standing on a podium in front of the musicians while executing a series of specific arm movements. The musicians interpret these movements, gaining information such as how fast or loud to play. A conductor learns standard conducting patterns as part of his or her education, but each develops his or her own style or approach over time. Fundamental knowledge of every instrument is standard, as well, and during the rehearsal process, conductors might physically demonstrate or verbally describe exactly what they want orchestra members to do to get specific sounds.

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Interpreting Music

The way orchestras read and translate variances in conducting styles are one reason why the same work can sound vastly different under different conductors. Another reason is that an orchestra conductor also faces the challenge of interpreting the artistic nature of the score. If he sees the term "ritard" in the score, for instance, he knows to slow down, but exactly how much is up to his judgment. This personal interpretation of the score, in conjunction with the person's individual conducting style, contributes to the overall "voice" of the orchestra.

Learning Specific Scores

All musicians in an orchestra must be proficient with their individual parts, but a conductor of an orchestra has to learn entire scores because he or she functions as a musical traffic director, cuing musicians so they enter or leave the musical highway at the right time. To become familiar with a given score, a conductor generally studies it visually, paying attention to theoretical considerations, such as instrumental transposition and harmonic progression. He or she usually makes personal notes in the score as study and rehearsal progress. Additionally, symphony conductors learn works by listening to recorded performances, with some individuals having the capacity to visualize at least one instrument's part at a time as they hear it. Some even hold mock performances for themselves, "conducting" a recording of a performance to practice cuing and other patterns.

Advancing Professional Education

The number of orchestral works available to symphony conductors is enormous, so these professionals never stop adding to their repertoire, often taking formal classes or attending seminars in advanced conducting techniques. They must also learn about music theory directly related to orchestral conducting, such as choral diction, and have at least basic understanding in the music languages of Latin, French, German and Italian. Conductors often pass these skills on as teachers, typically at the university level, and the best are highly sought after as artists.

Making Decisions and Promoting the Arts

A conductor of an orchestra often works as a creative and business decision maker for the ensemble. He or she might be involved in a range of non-performance tasks like choosing repertoire, providing media quotes, promoting orchestra events, guest lecturing, resolving conflicts, lining up guest performers, auditioning or recruiting new professional musicians, and participating in contract negotiations. The decisions the conductor makes on the orchestra's behalf greatly influence how the public perceives the orchestra and how successful it becomes, so he or she essentially is the public face of the ensemble.

When funding or other support of the symphonic and related arts is low, a conductor of an orchestra typically focuses his or her business attentions being a promoter. He or she might gather support from the public for legislation that would boost music funding, for example, or conduct and publish research demonstrating the positive effects that music has on communities. Without these efforts, the programs conductors are involved with face a greater risk of being cut, leaving them in danger of losing their jobs. New open positions are fairly rare and are highly competitive, so most conductors fight valiantly to support the arts and their own jobs.

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Discuss this Article

anon325934
Post 22

An orchestra conductor knows how the players can most efficiently play their instruments. He knows how to create mood, atmosphere and interpretation that match his vision of the performed piece. He doesn't need to play every instrument. He needs to know exactly what he wants from the sound and music form and to 'describe' that idea with his hand movements. In the professional world, we call it manual technique.

anon295671
Post 21

Why do you need so much musical skill/talent to be a conductor?

anon284710
Post 19

If a good orchestra is properly rehearsed by the conductor it can play almost on auto-pilot. Watch Christoph Eschenbach conducting Ravel's Bolero (Orcheste de Paris). He rarely uses his arms, hands or baton. Of course, Bolero is not a very complex piece.

assassinator
Post 14

Very enlightening subject. Came on looking for what a conductor does after watching The Lawrence Welk Show, thinking "What does this guy really do?"

Then I thought ancient sound mixer and producer.

Then anon106178 mentioned drummer/tempo/time keeper. O.K., click tracker.

Anyway, volume controller, and cue to certain real live analog tracks to play and precisely at volume/tempo given by conductor. The person who hears and feeds back to the band while properly "mixing" the re-rehearsed parts of the musicians.

The more things change the more they stay the same.

or "The Song Remains the Same." --KUS

anon154365
Post 13

A small band of, say, up to 10 musicians would normally follow a drummer for timekeeping and a lead instrument for dynamics. However a full sized orchestra would be set up on a large stage and the people at the extremities could be 40-50 feet away from the central point and if they were following each other by listening alone, without a conductor, there could be anything up to 30 milliseconds delay from the extremities. Not a great deal but enough to make it sound a bit ragged. They follow the conductor and line of sight is in practice, instant. --

A Sound Engineer.

anon133897
Post 12

Very good description of the profession. In answer to one comment on sound traveling the air: that's not correct. Good conductors are able to conduct in advance to what the orchestra plays. In other words: they anticipate what's coming up so the orchestra will do the right things in time and not too late.

Also very important: the conductor is the most important person on stage. If he is good then the orchestra can perform well. If he is bad which happens all too often then the performance will suffer. A famous name doesn't necessarily translate into a good conductor.

anon106178
Post 9

In reply to Anon36172: bands which consist of guitar, keyboards, drums, etc. usually have a drummer, or a drum machine to keep the tempo. The musical score is generally somewhat consistent throughout the song (the tempo and/or time signature rarely ever changes, and if they do, the drummer/drum machine queues the band), so changes are more predictable for the band to cue off of.

Also, the instruments are usually pumped through a sound system, so the mix of the band and loudness is maintained by an array of mixing engineers (house engineer, band engineer, etc..).

In a large orchestra, however, there is no sound system. The music is amplified by the acoustics of the concert hall surrounding the musicians, acting as a sounding board. Also, the music tends to very dynamic in nature, containing very quiet passages, and more dramatic passages. The conductors job is to ensure the entire orchestra is synchronized in addition to "mixing" (if you will) the arrangement.

For example, he may determine the flutes are a little too quiet for the concert hall they're playing in, so he may cue them to play louder. The conductor is essentially the sound mixer and drummer/drum machine for your typical rock/country band, in addition to serving several other functions.

Ok, aside from my response to that particular post, I wanted to point out for the audience that there's typically a delay in what they're actually hearing, as opposed to what they're seeing, as sound takes more time to reach you than the visual does. So remember this when you're 200 feet away from the conductor. He may seem out of sync with the music, but he's not, actually.

anon82882
Post 7

my orchestra's conductor knows how to play 3/4 of the instruments in the orchestra

he doesn't know how to play the woodwind instruments. the orchestra i am in is a chinese orchestra, not a symphony orchestra.

anon67391
Post 5

This is really great! I would like it, though, if you could go into a little more detail, but otherwise it's wonderful! I am doing an orchestra paper for school, and this helped me understand things a bit better. Thanks!

anon42137
Post 4

In response to anon36172's comment...

It is not very easy to play together when there are approximately 80 to 100 people in an orchestra- each person will have their own thoughts on how to play and it gets very confusing considering how many people have to be managed.

Most modern ensembles (consisting of about 4-5 people) are simpler to coordinate considering the fact that there are simply fewer people to deal with. Fewer instruments playing at once also contributes to allowing the performers to hear each other more clearly and correct subtle changes in tempo.

I know this from experience- my middle school band was full of very talented and experienced musicians, but the day our conductor was absent, we crashed and completely gave up on our rehearsal. Think of it as a country without government.

anon36172
Post 3

i know man, i hope im not sounding ignorant here but it really seems to me that most of the muscicians would do just fine without the conductor. How does every other band that plays music do it without one????? lol

anon34890
Post 2

Though some conductors are capable of playing every instrument in the ensemble (e.g. Hindemith), most are not. They are, however, familiar with the ins and outs, tendencies, problematic areas, variations, transpositions, and techniques for each instrument. In their journey through learning a score the conductor must understand the role of each section at any given point in the piece and therefore must understand how the instrument should be played. Long story short, the conductor must understand anything and everything going on with each section at any given time in a piece, even if he/she cannot actually play the instrument.

terryaustin
Post 1

Does the Conductor Know how to play every instrument?

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