couldnt the orchestra play all by themselves?

i make it a point to watch and so far ive never seen a musician even glance at the conductor. why do they need him there and why does he turn around and take the bow?

Well, you’re not taking into account peripheral vision. The conductor often makes very broad motions that can easily be picked up by the musicians as they’re looking at their music sheets. Musicians will look at the conductor at certain times where precision is of the essence or when a note is stretched out of tempo.

The conductor deserves credit for all the hard work he’s put before the concert. He or she is usually very proficient in music and has to make sure everyone is playing their own part correctly, with the appropriate amount of strenght, and in tempo with all the other musicians. They also have some artistic license in that they sometimes take decisions concerning the emphasis of certain parts of the music. There are plenty of other small details that they have to take care of. A conductor is much more than a stick waver with funky hair flying left and right.

Only humans commit inhuman acts.

Having both played and sung in groups, I can assure you that you pay quite a bit of attention to the conductor. Rarely is a professional or good amature musician actually reading the score note by note while performing, even if it is open in front of them.

One of the hardest things to do as a large group of musicians is to perform without a conductor. Keeping the tempo correct is quite a chore. Marching bands solve this with loud percussion to keep the beat. :slight_smile:

For a large group, performing without a conductor is extremely difficult, unless (as with marching bands) the music is quite simple and there is a strong beat playing throughout. (Small groups do it all the time, of course; you learn how to read each other.) The last concert of the NBC Symphony, possibly the greatest orchestra of all time, was performed without a conductor as a tribute to the great Toscanini, for whom the orchestra had been formed, and on whose retirement it was disbanded, and that performance is still spoken of with awe by professionals. Only Toscanini could have built an orchestra so great that it could perform without him.

In addition, most music from about Beethoven on (at least) requires choices to be made; in practice, a conductor is needed to make those decisions.

If you know a conductor well, of course, you don’t need to watch too closely. You learn to expect what he wants, and sometimes just a glimpse of his knees or his head will tell you all you need to know, without looking for the baton.

John W. Kennedy
“Compact is becoming contract; man only earns and pays.”
– Charles Williams

Peripheral vision plays a big part. I don’t always look straight out my conductor, but my music stand is high enough that he/she is visible just over the top of it.

Playing without a conductor is easier with some types of music than others. Baroque pieces (music by people like J. S. Bach, and Vivaldi) is easier to do that way because once it gets started there are usually no tempo changes or entrances after holds. Romantic music (Berlioz and Wagner, et al) would be almost impossible to do without a conductor.

Plus, I have to second Momotaro. The conductor is important for the work put in on rehearsals. Someone has to make decisions on how long to hold notes, how loud or quiet to play, and how fast or slow to play. If you get 90 opinionated musicians on a stage at the same time, you better have someone to have the final say.

“The saurians had no strange wine, no imagination, and they became extinct. And you don’t look so terrific yourself.” -Harlan Ellison

I like a political metaphor for musical groups. A jazz combo is small enough to be a confederation, with each member fitting into a larger whole while retaining autonomy (except in free jazz, which is anarchy). A big band has to have a leader to keep everybody in line. An orchestra needs an absolute dictator. Don’t know where marching bands fit in though.

Nothing I write about any person or group should be applied to a larger group.

  • Boris Badenov

Oh, everybody’s off marching to their own beat! :slight_smile:

And now I have to tell my conductor joke, I apologize in advance. Those of you that have played in an orchestra will especially appreciate it.

What’s the difference between an orchestra and a bull?

Answer to follow . . . later.

your humble TubaDiva

i was expecting to read “to keep the tempo,you moron” alot i havent your replies are very informative and appreciated

Related question: Why is the concertmaster always the first violinist? Or is it just an amazing coincidence that I’ve only seen first violinists in that job?

The violin are considered the elite of the orchestra, and the first violin is the elite of the elite. It is sort of like the lead guitarist in a rock band, or the women with the most makeup in a country & western band.

The other “elite instrument” is the piano, but those aren’t given a big role in orchestras, except during piano concertos, due to the difficulty of making the piano blend with all the other instruments.

So, the first violinist is traditionally the concertmaster. To extend my earlier metaphor, if the conductor is the dictator, the first violinist is something like a prime minister. In fact, in those chamber music combos that don’t have a conductor, the first violinist usually fills that role.

Nothing I write about any person or group should be applied to a larger group.

  • Boris Badenov

It has only been mentioned in passing, but the conductor is like the orchestra’s personal trainer. I doubt if more than the most devoted musicians would put in the hours and hours of practice that the conductor requires and gets.
And okay already…orchestra and bull…out with it. Out with it!

Yeah Doug, we’re so freaking talented we just sit down, glance at the music, and play. Don’t have to study it . . . don’t have to practice it . . . we just DO it. Mahler? Piece of cake! Ellington? In my sleep with both hands tied behind me. The conductor’s gonna tell me how to do this, he’s gonna be my personal trainer and do all the work and all the thinking for me.

All those years we spent in the practice room, omigod, we could have been drinking beer or playing darts or something useful, just waiting on the conductor to get us through the stuff. I wasted all that time working on music, why, why, why?

Musicians work just as hard and just as much as conductors do; I would say it’s about equal. The tasks are different; the outcome is the same. The work remains for both sides.

And I can say that; I’ve played, I’ve conducted. I’ve done far more playing than conducting, but you can’t do everything. (I’d like to do more, maybe someday.)

To my mind, here’s the diff: as a player, you shape your performance to the dictate (or the whim, or the vision or whatever the hell they got going up there) of the conductor. That doesn’t mean you shut off your feelings or your skill for interpretation, but you do subsume individualistic concerns to the overall concept of the conductor and the group sound. You agree to this when you become an ensemble player, btw; a player that does not have an ensemble sound sticks out, detracts from the whole. (I’m not talking about soloists here . . . except sometimes. :slight_smile: )

As a conductor, it’s more of your personal take, your individualistic approach to the piece that gets across. It’s your vision, how you hear the piece in your head and the talent to get it out of your head, get it across to the players . . . and have them share in that vision with you. It involves your head, your heart, your hands . . . and when it works, it’s about the greatest thing I know.

All that aside, back to the joke!

What’s the difference between an orchestra and a bull?

On a bull, the horns are in the front and the asshole is in the back; in the orchestra, it’s the other way around!

your humble TubaDiva

“Life isn’t what should be, it’s what is.”-- Lenny Bruce

(as possibly the only other person on the SDMB who has tuba-playing experience in orchestras and other large ensembles, Ukulele Ike wonders whether he should evilly deflate Our Humble TubaDiva after her well-reasoned and perfectly-phrased post)

What the heck…I’ve got a 128-bar rest before my next whole note, anyway…


A long time ago they didn’t have to look. The conductor beat the time with a staff on the floor. The French composer Jean Baptiste Lully killed himself doing this. He brought the staff down on his foot and got gangrene.

OK, you don’t believe me. Look it up.

I should mention here the one exception to the rule which is the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra; a smaller orchestra to be sure, but one which performs without a conductor.

Saint Eutychus

Ukulele Ike’s comment “I’ve got a 128-bar rest before my next whole note, anyway…” reminded me of one my MANY band stories I like to share…

I was in college concert band, playing percussion. It was a rehersal, and we were practicing “America the Beautiful” – B O R I N G ! Not knocking the tune, it’s just that I’ve only played it a million times, and the rest of our program was a lot more interesting. And to top it off, I had ONE note to play on the chimes (B-flat) near the end of the song.

So while I was supposed to be keeping an eye on the score, I was furiously flirting with a female drummer who was really quite fetching. I heard my appointed moment come, and I was nowhere near the chimes. I rushed up, grabbed the mallet, and was so rushed and confused I didn’t have time to flip to the right page of the score. So I hit a note.

The WRONG note. Nice and loud.

The conductor stopped, and melodramatically dropped his baton, then fell over his music stand. When he got back up, he gave me a public tongue-lashing worthy of a Marine drill instructor…

I second TubaDiva’s post. Well said!

Doug, try getting a decent job in an orchestra without being one of the “most devoted musicians.” Also, the conductor generally doesn’t practice so much as he studies. There’s a difference. One involves improving physical skill along with increasing knowledge and familiarity of the piece. The other one doesn’t. If we’re talking about one of the major orchestras, I doubt that the conductor can play any instrument as well as even the weakest player in front of him. His forte is in knowing how it all fits together.

“The saurians had no strange wine, no imagination, and they became extinct. And you don’t look so terrific yourself.” -Harlan Ellison

Don’t deflate me evilly; do it kindly, it’s Monday.

your humble TubaDiva

As a part-time opera singer (haven’t played instruments much since high school) I can tell you that the difference between conductors is tremendous. Having a really good conductor is like being Fred Astaire’s partner. Having a bad one is a nightmare.

John W. Kennedy
“Compact is becoming contract; man only earns and pays.”
– Charles Williams

Mr. KIA (and, of course, TubaDiva) are absolutely correct about work and practice.
Next time you’re at a concert, count the non-string-playing musicians: Winds in twos, maybe four horns, trumpets and trombones in twos. That’ll handle your basic Haydn-through-Schumann. You get into your Berlioz, and then the later Romantics and 20th-century composers, you can maybe add one each to the winds (and they’ll have to double on piccolo, English horn, E-flat clarinet, contrabassoon, etc.), one or two to each brass, and a tuba.

Not a lot of positions open there, huh? If you’ve got your heart set on being the tuba player or the tympanist for the Cleveland Orchestra or the New York Philharmonic, there’s quite a few guys in line ahead of you, Jack.

(The string section, of course, features a boatload of violinists in the first and second sections, and a hefty number of violists, cellists, and bassists.)

First job I had out of college was in the music publishing business. Just about every one of the 20- and 30-somethings there pushing papers around was a concert-quality bassoonist, trumpet player, clarinetist, whatever, many with a Master’s degree in performance in their back pocket. A lot of conversation about the slim chances for an orchestra job, and the general loathing for string players.

Want to be a professional classical musician? Work hard, get lucky. Or take up the fiddle.