What Is A Music Conductor?

2011Symposium_1_2Today I would like to explore conductors. Not the kind that drives a train, or the kind that carries electricity, though both have similarities to my topic. No, the conductor I want to explore is the kind that stands in front of a symphony orchestra, or wind ensemble, or choir. At first glance, it appears that the players or singers are doing most of the work, and the conductor is just standing there, waving his arms and putting on a show for the audience, and maybe keeping the musicians together with the same beat, and showing them when to play louder or softer. While it’s true that a conductor does all of these things, he does a lot more than this as well.

A conductor is first and foremost the music personified. He hears the music in his head, including every last detail; not just the pitches and rhythms, but every expressive nuance, every shading of audible color, every urging of the music to continue on to the very end. The most important thing a conductor does is to communicate to the ensemble all of those things with as few words as possible. An ensemble is invited into the mind and even more importantly into the imagination of the conductor, and given the opportunity to share in the music that is there, and to recreate it so that an audience can be included.

A moment ago I mentioned color as one of the concerns of a conductor. Color in music is a metaphor, drawn from visual art, and often used to describe moods or expressive qualities of music. Color is but one of the musical elements that make up the conductor’s and ultimately the orchestra’s animation of a composer’s work. I would like to use the parallel to visual art to illustrate what a conductor concerns himself with. Here is the lyric to the song “Color and Light” from Stephen Sondheim’s musical comedy Sunday in the Park with George. Notice how the artist builds the artwork from the elements of the artform. This is exactly what the conductor must do—manage and balance all of the musical elements until they are just right to express what is in his imagination. As the artist George Seurat is working on his painting, “ A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” he sings to the constant rhythmic pattering of his pointillistic brush strokes.


More red…

And a little more red…

Blue blue blue blue

Even even…


Bumbum bum bumbumbum

Bumbum bum…

More red…

More blue…

More light!

Color and light.

There’s only color and light.

Yellow and white.

Just blue and yellow and white.

Look at the air, miss-

See whet I mean?

No, look over there, miss-

That’s done with green…

Conjoined with orange…


The conductor has complete understanding and control over the structural elements of the music, and then imagines the sounds that fill the form, balancing them, moving them, taking full advantage of every note to make the form and the expressive intent crystal clear.

How does a conductor do this? Many focus on the immediately noticeable actions of arm and baton gestures, and perhaps head and whole body movements as well. While these are important, there have been great conductors who barely moved at all. Fritz Reiner comes immediately to mind. Conducting goes beyond these things. It involves eyes that focus on those responsible for what is needed at that moment, to bring it out or shape it, or that quiet a musician bringing an element to unwanted prominence. It involves slight and subtle movements of the end of the baton, as Reiner would constantly do, or an encouraging nod of the head as Maazel would frequently offer. Maazel, in an interview for PBS News Hour, said,

“Conductors are there to conduct, not to make speeches, and they are there to give a beat that everyone can understand. No choreography, just do your job. Functional conducting. Obviously, there’s a lot more to conducting and making music than that, but these are two point that I learned as a player. When a conductor would appear on the podium who knew where the down beat is, and could communicate with clarity just what it is that he expected from each player musically and technically, it was just like heaven.”

In Maazel’s comments, we find that not only must a conductor communicate the musicality of a work, but must also be knowledgeable of the technical demands and capacities of the instruments, such as range and methods of sound production, and of the musicians themselves. A common illustration of this not occurring is when conductors insist on taking Beethoven’s fortissimo literally at the end of his ninth symphony, and applying it to the choir sopranos singing, or more often screeching, high a after high a. The great violinist Isaac Stern once said that a great conductor needed to convince the orchestra that he knew more about the music than all of them combined.

A conductor must be prepared to be the music, and to show every member of the ensemble he is conducting how to collectively become that version of the music personified. This goes far beyond baton technique, or practicing gestures in front of a mirror. It demands an all-in commitment to the music, and a willing transparency that allows the forces being led to have clear access to the aural vision standing on the podium. The conductor’s responsibility is to share the music as it is in his head, with those he is conducting. It is then the responsibility of the ensemble to share the same with an audience. Conductors are conductors of ensembles, not audiences. I think that is the essence of Maazel’s reference to choreography. Be the music to the ensemble in rehearsal, and the ensemble will be the music to the audience in performance.


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