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What does a music conductor do?

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 09, 2012

Alan Gilbert is the music director of the New York Philharmonic and in this video, he talks about what a conductor does. I’ve been to the Philharmonic a few times in the past year and have wondered about the role of the conductor…specifically, is he actually doing anything up there to affect the music being played in realtime and could the orchestra play without him? The conductor obviously has a huge role in shaping the piece in rehearsal, but it seems like his presence on stage during the performance itself might be more performance than utility. But that’s just a guess.

Update: I got an informative response about this from professional classical musician Chris Brody:

You’re absolutely right that one of the main things an orchestra conductor does is to prepare the orchestra in rehearsal for the way he/she wants the piece to sound in performance. A lot of stuff is conveyed in that way that the conductor then won’t need to attempt to convey in real time during the performance. And furthermore, as you suspect, conductors are often in some sense kind of “dancing” for the audience during performances, in ways that are strictly superfluous to making the musicians play correctly, though sometimes an enjoyable part of the concert experience.

In order for a concert performance to come off correctly, someone has to take responsibility for giving what musicians call “cues”-concrete gestures that enable everyone to know when to start playing. In chamber music (classical music played in small groups), one of the players will do this, usually with an exaggerated, rhythmically timed gesture that connotes “taking a breath to start playing right NOW” or “preparing my bow to play the string right NOW”, and so on. In fact, there are entire smallish orchestras, like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, that play with no conductor, because members of the ensemble give cues when they are needed.

In larger (orchestral) settings, it is convenient to have a conductor to give cues instead. Of course, there are some pieces that are played with metronomic strictness, and the conductor in fact will have fairly little to do during those performances. You might have noticed that pieces from the Baroque and Classical periods are usually quite strict in time, and it is no coincidence that there was no such thing as a professional conductor until the nineteenth century-music prior to that was usually quite playable with the first-chair violinist (“concertmaster”) or the keyboardist giving a few cues as needed. (Conductors were occasionally used prior to the nineteenth century, but not so much that it was anyone’s entire job.)

Some pieces, by contrast, have a lot of changes of tempo, or a lot of starting and stopping. In cases like that, a conductor is really an indispensable part of having a performance come off non-disastrously! Furthermore, a lot of pieces are written in a complicated enough texture or rhythm that the musicians cannot necessarily hear what the beat is all the time, and need some visual help to stay together (this is especially true of very slow music, and of a lot of twentieth-century music).

Aside from this, when ensembles don’t need help staying together, the conductor will do a lot of gesturing to elicit slight changes in dynamic level, expressive character, and so on, from the musicians. Very good ensembles, when working with a conductor they respect, will absolutely respond in real time to these gestures. Less good ensembles will often not be able to do so and will mostly watch the conductor for cues. Also, ultra-elite ensembles are sometimes known to ignore the conductor during performances if they think he/she isn’t adding much value (a dirty secret of professional musicians!), or of course if they do not have confidence in the conductor’s ability to keep them together.

A couple more things that might interest you. Basic conducting is done via the use of “patterns” that correspond to certain time signatures. When a conductor conducts music in 3/4 (3 beats per measure), there will be 3 precise places that the baton is expected to be during the measure, and the musicians can always look up and follow that pattern. (The basic patterns are shown in this video.) If you watch, let’s say, a high-school band, you will see the conductor use these patterns very strictly and literally. In orchestral conducting, two things are different. First, the musicians don’t need much help keeping time, so the patterns are either heavily modified or abandoned entirely-although you can often see downbeats and things if you look for them. Second, orchestral conductors conduct WAY ahead of the beat the musicians are actually playing. This helps the musicians respond in real time to the conductor’s instructions. From the audience’s perspective, therefore, it can be nearly impossible to see the connection between what the conductor is doing and what you’re hearing from the musicians-they’re probably substantially out of sync.

Looks like I have a lot more to look for the next time I go to the symphony. (thx, chris!)

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