What Does An Orchestral Conductor Do On Stage?

Learn a little bit about the history of conductors and why .....


Have you ever watched a performance of a symphony orchestra and wondered what the conductor on stage was doing?

The conductor is the person who oversees the entire project. The conductor is a facilitator or a coordinator for the ensemble performing.

In this episode of “The Art of Listening,” we take a look at how conductors came to be, and what techniques they use to lead an orchestra.

Did orchestras always use conductors?

In the past, the orchestra was much smaller than it was today, so there was no need for a conductor. The first violinist, who was called the “Leader” of the group, was the person who started and stopped the ensemble. The Leader was also responsible for directing the rehearsals.

As orchestras grew, the need for a conductor became more apparent. Opera became popular, and the orchestra needed to go beneath the stage. Since the performers couldn’t see each other, it became essential to have someone central and on a podium so everyone could see, coordinate the singers onstage with the players underneath.

Were the composers ever the conductors?

In the beginning, the composers themselves were the conductors. This is portrayed in numerous movies including the movie about Mozart called, “Amadeus”. Over time, composers began to entrust their compositions to people they knew would interpret them correctly. As their pieces lived beyond their own lives, conductors continued to do this important task faithfully. The conductor became the person who speaks for the composer when the composer cannot be there.

Does the conductor tell the orchestra what to do?

All the players in the orchestra have their own individual parts in front of them. The conductor has all the parts on one page in his music, and so he or she can coordinate the ensemble. The conductor does not tell people what to do! He or she is more of a facilitator that leads the rehearsals and concerts and is more of a “silent partner” in the process.

What role does each hand play for the conductor?

The right hand generally holds the baton and beats time when the orchestra needs it. The left hand generally shows dynamics (when to get louder or softer), and expressiveness. However, both hands can switch functions quite a bit. Because the right hand usually has the beat patterns, this can be an excellent confirmation for the players as to what beat they are actually on in the measure – sometimes difficult to coordinate in a group of 100 people! Some orchestras like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra do not use a conductor, but it takes them much longer in the rehearsal process.

Tell us about the first time you got onto the podium.

I was invited to conduct the Overture to Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute with an ensemble called The Orchestra of St. Peter by the Sea. It was an orchestra I had played in for several years already, and I knew everyone in it well. I was so nervous at the rehearsal, I couldn’t stop shaking! I gave a good cue for the opening brass chord, and the Music Director leaned forward to me after I cut them off and said, “Don’t be TOO good!” Things went very well from that moment on, and I conducted several times that summer. By September, I had a job conducting a youth symphony.

Who is your favorite conductor that you look up to?

Without a doubt, it’s Carlos Kleiber. When he conducted, you could see every single note in the score somewhere on his body. If I had the amount of skill for conducting he had in his little pinky, I would be a very happy person!

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