No Conductor

OK, I’m trying to explain the role of a conductor of an orchestra. A friend wonders why one is needed outside of rehearsals. If the orchestra practices the music enough times, they should be able to do it during a performance without him. So, can anyone help me here as my experience is only listening to it.

A director’s role during a performance can be mostly ornamental, depending on the director and orchestra. However, the director can provide some distinct value, for one, it acts as a universal control knob. The venue they’re performing in may have different acoustics than their practice venue, and the director can equalize and tune the dynamics and “mixing” (if you will) in realtime in the venue, which even with a grade A orchestra still may not be the best to expect each member to judge for themselves. The director also has some “why chance it?” value, similar to sheet music. Many musicians probably COULD play their pieces from memory by the time it comes to performance, but having the director keeping time in front of you (or the sheet music) provides an extra level of security. Furthermore, all it takes is one or two people inadvertently rushing or slowing to throw the entire ensemble out of tempo, this is, again, less of a worry with professional musicians, but having the director ensures you have someone dedicated to making damn sure the little things like that remain correct.

The director can also allow for some “playing to the crowd” variation. For instance, an accelerando may have only gone 10-20 clicks above tempo before, but the director can decide that the way the day has been going it might sound better to take it slightly more up or down for that audience. Same for how long to hold fermatas and such.

Though it is easily possible to have a somewhat well functioning orchestra without a conductor, or have a conductor that’s just kind of “there.” Again, it heavily depends on the ensemble and specific conductor in question.

An orchestra is a single instrument, which is played by the conductor.

That’s hyperbole, but not entire inaccurate.

You can sort of look at an orchestra as a collective instrument. The conductor “plays” the orchestra.

There are a LOT of variables in translating a written piece into an audible piece. Dynamics, tempo, emphasis, how many (or, sometimes, which) times to follow a particular dal segno…basically, the conductor puts his stamp on the piece by selecting the stylistic elements he wants in the piece.

While it IS possible to impart all of this in rehearsal, the sheer number of players (and parts) in an orchestra make it very difficult to pull this off in performance. All you need is one section lead counting just a fraction of a second too fast or slow and the piece is a cacophony within minutes. All you need is one player miscalculating his or her own volume and you have the bassoon taking over the whole thing.

A conductor can hear the piece as a whole. Believe me, from my own very minor and amateur situation having played in large symphonic band groups at regionals in high school, it’s HARD to hear the whole performance. Depending on your instrument, you can be well behind the bulk of the orchestra/band, which is busily focusing their sound forward, away from you. You cannot trust your own perceptions of how the whole thing sounds when you’re in the middle of it.

The conductor really is necessary.

ETA: That’s not to say that there aren’t any conductorless orchestras. Just that they’re pretty rare.

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra has been performing without a conductor for decades. Granted, they’re usually performing smaller-scale works.

Without the conductor, the musicians could fly off in all kinds of individual directions, losing connection to the overall presentation.

Basically, he keeps them grounded.

An old “Quasi-Question” from way back in the day!

Don’t think I can link it though, since it may have been lost in the “Winter of Our Discontent”!