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A conductor directs rehearsals and performances by an orchestra, band, chorus, opera company, or other musical group. In the most general terms, a conductor's job is to shape a musical interpretation; to form ideas about the most compelling way to perform a piece and to lead a group of musicians in such a way that those ideas are realized. Conductors often serve as the "music directors" of their organizations, as well. A music director's duties include choosing programs and soloists and hiring (and firing) musicians.

In shaping a musical interpretation, a conductor has many specific responsibilities, which are similar no matter what kind of group he or she conducts. (In this discussion, an orchestra is assumed for the sake of convenience.) These responsibilities may be grouped as follows:

1. Accuracy — The conductor must ensure that the composer's intentions and instructions are faithfully carried out. At the very least, this means making sure that everybody's playing all the right notes and rhythms.

2. Ensemble — The conductor must make sure everyone plays together, in precise rhythmic and musical coordination. The conductor is also responsible for giving "cues," signals with a hand motion, nod, or look that indicate (or confirm) the right moment for an individual player or section to make a musical entrance.

3. Tempo and dynamics (speed and volume) — Again, the conductor's job is to ensure the realization of the composer's intentions, but it's also to interpret those intentions, which means choosing general levels of tempo and volume as well as supervising all the fine shadings.

4. Phrasing — Tempo and dynamics are part of phrasing, but so are such elusive factors as "direction," "emphasis," and "pacing," all of which affect the shape and coherence of musical phrases or passages.

5. Quality of sound — The conductor is at all times responsible for the kind of sound the orchestra produces. Whether it's full, thin, harsh, gentle, powerful, rich, light, heavy, round, lean, muscular, or "noble," the orchestra's sound should always suit the music.

6. Balance — The conductor must make sure that what should be heard is heard, that different but simultaneous musical "lines" are at the proper volume levels relative to their importance, that one instrument, voice, or group of instruments doesn't inadvertently drown out any others.

7. Style — The conductor must elicit from the orchestra an overall character of performance that is best suited to the composer, the period, and the piece.


The way a conductor ensures that all the members of an orchestra start together and stay together is to beat time. The fundamental principle is simple: the speed of the beat indicates the tempo of the music. Conductors usually beat time with a stick called a baton, held in the right hand. (Some conductors, especially choral conductors, prefer not to use a baton, but they're in a minority. Most conductors feel that the baton is very important for the visibility and clarity of the beat.) By convention, certain beat patterns are used to indicate certain metrical patterns, with the first beat of each measure always shown by a downward stroke, or "downbeat," and the last beat shown by an upward stroke. When the music is "in two," for example (that is, when there are two beats per measure), the stick goes down to show the first beat, then back up for the second, with the pattern repeated over and over. When the music is in three, the stick goes down for "one," to the right for "two," then back up for "three" before starting again. And when there are four beats per measure, the pattern is down, left, right, and up.

A good conductor, however, can indicate much more with the beat than just information about tempo and meter. It's not only the pattern and speed that count, but also the qualities of the beat. Expansive gestures, tight gestures, large or small gestures, and motions that are smooth, choppy, delicate, or violent all convey different information and can elicit different musical results. With a good conductor — and a good orchestra — the quality of sound the orchestra produces is influenced by the qualities of the beat, by the character of the conductor's physical gestures.

And these physical gestures are not limited to the hand with the baton. They include complementary gestures of the left hand, as well as overall "body language." In fact, especially from the point of view of musical expressiveness — dynamics, phrasing, sound quality, and so forth — conductors lead by a kind of multilevel physical seduction, a seduction of which the orchestra musicians may not even be aware. This is why even individuals who have fine musical minds and/or "great hands" — some instrumentalists turned conductor, for example — don't necessarily make good conductors if they are unrefined in their larger movements or physically awkward in a general way. Then again, people can be seductive in many different ways, and conductors of widely differing physiques, physical styles, and temperaments can be effective. In conducting, as in everything else, the absolute rule is that nothing is absolute.

A conductor does a large part of his or her work — perhaps the largest part — away from the public eye, in study and in rehearsal. It is in the many hours of studying the score that a conductor learns a piece of music in detail and formulates his interpretative ideas, and it is in rehearsal that the conductor communicates those ideas to the musicians — in both word and gesture — and sees that they are brought to fruition in the playing. (Most professional orchestras have a maximum of four rehearsals of about two and a half hours each for each concert program, with three or four different pieces per program.) Conductors have varying styles and techniques of rehearsing. Some are tense, some are relaxed; some talk quite a bit and some talk very little; some spend considerable time going over every detail and others never do much more than have the orchestra play through all the pieces a few times.


The question remains: What makes a good conductor? Musical imagination, intelligence, and judgment certainly come first, since there's no point learning how to communicate with an orchestra in the absence of musical ideas that are worth communicating. A conductor must also have confidence in his ideas and the self-assurance and personal presence to lead well, to be completely convincing, even inspiring, in the role. A good ear is essential, both for judging overall qualities and for pinpointing specific problems within large and complicated masses of sound. A well-trained "inner ear," too, or "mind's ear," is very important for studying scores and for "hearing" music just by looking at the printed page. In order for an orchestra to feel at ease and confident enough to play freely and beautifully, a conductor must also demonstrate a rock-solid sense of rhythm. Tempos must be consistent and steady, beating mistakes rare, and rhythmic complexities handled securely. A good conductor also possesses a certain physical grace, or at least coordination, which translates into a clear beat and musically meaningful gestures. A good conductor must be at ease facing large and complex forces and coordinating their efforts, and he must know how to run an efficient, well-organized rehearsal. It may seem a simplistic thing to say, but with a good conductor, both the music and the orchestra playing it should sound better after rehearsal than they did before. Like all good musicians, a good conductor must also have a flair for performance, the ability to remain in control and yet bring a little something extra when it counts the most.

And bad conductors? Some are unimaginative or uninteresting, even if they're technically competent. Others are just not very gifted — they have difficulty communicating musical ideas, either physically, verbally, or both. Some may even put on quite an extravagant physical show (complete with rapturous facial expressions that look great on TV), but without necessarily communicating much that's musically relevant or useful to the members of the orchestra. Other conductors are unprepared or undependable, and in fact they get in the way. They're uncertain in their gestures and cues, and they make mistakes. In rehearsal they may be disorganized or inefficient, which means they either allot their time poorly or use it poorly. They may mistake little problems for big ones and vice versa, or they may not even notice problems. And when they do notice them, they may not known how to fix them.

To the extent that they can, good orchestras try to ignore bad or mediocre conductors, both in rehearsal and in performance. As a matter of fact, it's not that uncommon for orchestras to rescue conductors from their mistakes — to play passages correctly even when the conductor beats the wrong pattern or gets lost. The truth is that most of what an orchestra needs to know is already indicated in the music by the composer, and one can do a lot worse than just to play what's written. An excellent, inspiring conductor can lift a performance to another level, but an orchestra doesn't necessarily need a conductor to "make it play" or to inspire it — the music does that. It's a matter of professional accomplishment and professional pride for the best orchestras that they simply don't allow themselves to play below a certain level.

In all fairness, it's not always easy for the audience to tell whether a conductor is good or bad. First of all, the audience doesn't get to attend the rehearsals. More importantly, though, the best music is "hard to kill," and will usually sound pretty good — or pretty terrific — no matter what, especially in the hands of a fine orchestra. Is an exciting performance the result of a great piece of music played by excellent musicians, or is it the conductor who is responsible for the excitement? It's hard to know. Familiarity with a specific orchestra or with a specific piece helps enormously. Does the orchestra sound better with this conductor than with that one, more precise, richer, more vibrant, with a wider range of sounds and qualities? Does the performance of a certain piece seem more persuasive, more beautiful, more interesting, more exciting? These are the questions to ask.

Audiences tend to see conductors in a very glamorous light. After all, these people wield authority over lots of other people, over great musical forces. A conductor stands alone, high on a podium, and calls forth oceans of sound with a wave of the baton. The image is one of great power. In the modern mythology of conductors, in fact, one of the figures occupying a prominent place is that of the glorious tyrant of days gone by, the musical giant who treated orchestras disdainfully, even cruelly. There have indeed been such figures — some of whom left behind legendary reputations and hundreds of recordings — and there are those who claim that the tyranny was worth it for the fabulous musical results; that it was all in the service of great art. But is it really necessary for conductors to be unpleasant, intimidating, or tyrannical in their behavior toward orchestras in order to achieve the highest standards?

The answer is no, and the number of wonderful conductors who are, or were, perfectly pleasant and polite proves the point. Yes, conductors need to be sure of themselves. Any leader needs to radiate confidence in order for others to follow him with confidence and enthusiasm, and the conductors that orchestras tend to respect the most are those who "know what they want and know how to get it." But tyrannical behavior, temper tantrums, insulting or belittling remarks — all are musically unnecessary, and all represent an unfortunate misuse of musical authority. Those conductors in "the old days" who were tyrants simply took personal advantage of a world in which their power was unlimited. Today there are limits: with collective bargaining agreements and the strengthening of musicians' unions over the last thirty years, orchestra players both in this country and abroad have a much larger say in their working conditions. Although conductors may still be able to say what they want, they can't always just do what they want. It used to be the case, for example, that a music director could summarily fire a musician at any time, and for any reason, professional or personal. No longer. When a player proves incompetent he can still be fired, but the procedures for doing so (especially in major orchestras) are specific and strict, and usually require review by a committee of orchestra members in addition to the decision of the conductor. A conductor of cruel bent can still embarrass someone and make his life in the orchestra very difficult, but he can no longer take away his livelihood in a single stroke.

It's worth emphasizing that the best conductors respect the musicians they conduct, and are respected by them in return. Orchestra musicians are certainly cynical enough when it comes to conductors of meager skills, but their cynicism is quickly replaced with enthusiasm and admiration in the presence of conductors of true stature and accomplishment.


The age of the modern conductor began in the early nineteenth century. Prior to that time, most operatic and orchestral works included harpsichord, and the person who beat time was either the harpsichordist or the concertmaster (the principal violinist). The concertmaster would use his bow to give signals, and the harpsichordist might use either his hand or a rolled-up sheet of paper. As orchestral and operatic forces expanded in the nineteenth century, and as the complexity of music increased, it became a necessity to have conductors of undivided responsibilities. (It's an interesting point, though, that in the early nineteenth century it was quite common for conductors to face the audience, not the orchestra.) The first important conductors of the nineteenth century were composers who also conducted, such as Ludwig Spohr (1784–1859), Carl Maria von Weber (1786–1826), and Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847). The composer-conductor tradition was later carried on by such figures as Gustav Mahler (1860–1911) and Richard Strauss (1864–1949). Among the first of those whose renown rested solely on their conducting accomplishments were Hans von Bülow (1830–1894), Hans Richter (1843–1916), Arthur Nikisch (1855–1922), Arturo Toscanini (1867–1957), and Pierre Monteux (1875–1964). These conductors, among others, helped establish both the image and the reality of the conductor as a powerful, revered figure in the music world.

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[NPR Logo] The NPR® Classical Music Companion: Terms and Concepts from A to Z by Miles Hoffman, published by Houghton Mifflin Company. Copyright © 1997 by Miles Hoffman and National Public Radio. All rights reserved.