Orchestra Conductor

I’ve always wondered…why do they have a conductor waving a baton around when the orchesta plays? Are the people in the orchestra really looking and paying attention or what? Seems stupid to me that someone would spend half their life playing an instrument only to have someone give the “ups and downs” (is that supposed to mean something?) to a score they could probably play in their sleep. I can understand the “stabs” the conductor gives to the drum section, but, really, is he necessary?

Always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of snakebite, and furthermore, always carry a small snake.
-W.C. Fields

Here are a bunch of previous threads we’ve done on this topic:

What exactly does an orchestra conductor do?
Orchestra conducting
orchestra conductors…what’s the point?
The Orchestra’s Conductor?
What does an orchestra sound like without a conductor?

The “ups and downs” are (1) visual rhythm cues that keep everyone playing in synch (2) cues for the entrances of a particular section and (3) general directions for how to play a particular part of the piece.

(1) is always necessary in some sense, otherwise the musicians will have a hard time keeping together just by what they hear. Especially in larger ensembles, where it takes a nontrivial amount of time for sounds to cross a stage. That delay makes it difficult for the last chair violins to keep tempo with the bass section. Visual cues also allow organic changes in tempo.

(2) is not strictly necessary, but is sure helpful when a given section doesn’t play for the entire first half of a piece and then has to come in at exactly the precise moment. The individual musicians can usually follow along anyways, but there are times when the entrance is after 37 measures and three and an eighth beats of very repetitive music played by another section.

(3) is not strictly necessary but is part of what separates the great orchestras from the good or mediocre. Here the conductor is asking for specific things from the players: louder, more staccato, less emphasis on the third beat, etc.

In smaller ensembles (say, anywhere from a duet to a 20-person chamber orchestra) one of the musicians will be the leader and will communicate with body language and facial expressions. This just isn’t possible in the larger ensembles, where it’s just not possible for everyone to look at one person unless that person is standing on a podium and waving their arms like mad.

I just watched my daughter’s high school orchestra play last night and noticed the bass players were watching the conductor pretty closely. Sometimes the conductor will step off the podium for a song and alert the audience that the kids are playing without a conductor. So, I’d guess the conductor helps keep everyone together greatly, but a good orchestra can also play without a conductor.

The musicians are playing their instruments, the conductor is “playing” the orchestra. The conductor will have a vision of exactly what the piece should sound like, and needs to coax that from each member of the orchestra. A lot of this will be worked out verbally during rehearsal. Much of the conductors motions during performance serve as visual reminders of what the conductor asked for during rehearsal.

In addition to just staying together, it can be hard for a group to maintain a steady tempo when required, and to gradually or suddenly change tempo when that is what is required. The conductor sets the tempo at each change, and is constantly on guard for one section starting to get ahead or lag behind. Without exactly one person responsible for holding the tempo a large group will often chase each other resulting in a surging tempo.

Things like exactly when to start, restart after a dramatic silence, how long to hold a drawn-out note absolutely require the conductor…or someone to make that call. The first violinist normally conducts a small ensemble with the tip of her bow for example.

The conductor is a necessary part of the orchestra.

All the decisions are made by the conductor and with that goes the responsibility of the performance.

So what does this mean?

  1. Although the music might say andante this is still just a relative range of tempos for the music. The conductor decides precisely which tempo will be used. Also, tempo changes can be drastic, the conductor makes the decision and coordinates the entire orchestra.

  2. As described above the musicians all coordinate what they do. It’s really not that hard to come in after 37 measures of rest. However, its very difficult to come in after 200 measures of rest and you had to retune your instrument (timpany especially). The first class orchestras consider the tiniest error to be a major error, so the musicians rely on the conductor to help them get it precisely right.

  3. It is very difficult for the individual musicians to judge the correct balance of their part with other instruments. If you are a trumpeter the sound is projected straight out away from the musician, you have no real idea of whether you are blending with others or completely dominating the music. The conductor’s job is to solve these balance problems.

  4. The conductor is responsible for the overall impression of the music. This is an intangible and is completly dependant on the artistry of the conductor, it’s a big deal.

Keep in mind that the major part of the conductor’s work is done during the rehearsals. Herbert von Karajan once explained why he used to stand with his eyes closed, hardly conducting at all, something like this “My work is already done, so at the performance I can relax and just enjoy the music”.

My sister sings with a nationally-known chorus that sometimes has guest conductors, some of whom know next to nothing about choral music. The regular conductor, a perfectionist with an ego as big as Mt. Everest, sometimes will tell the chorus ahead of time to “IFS” - “Ignore the Fool with the Stick.”

Another Important role of the conductor is during musicals and opera. The orchestra is in the pit partially underneath the stage and can’t see much, if anything, on stage so the conductor is the one person both stage and pit can see and they keep it all coordinated.

That’s exactly what I was going to come in here to post. During rehearsals, the conductor irons out exactly how he wants the music to sound (faster here, slower here, you - play louder and you - play softer, etc). By the time they play in front of an audience, the musicians have probably rehearsed well enough that they could almost play without the conductor and get pretty close to what the conductor wanted.

Without a conductor though, you may find that the orchestra will speed up or slow down as they try to keep in time with each other (in my experience musicians mostly tend to speed up). They don’t have to watch the conductor like a hawk, but he does keep everything on track with the tempo.

That said, some professional orchestras do surprisingly few rehearsals, and in these cases those many gestures are important to remind the musicians exactly how the conductor wants various parts played.

You can watch Leonard Bernstein’s Omnibus episode from the 1950s on this very subject (yes, that’s Alistair Cooke as the host).

During my brief stint as a professional violinist, we would only start rehearsing Monday for a Friday concert. With only 4-5 (strings had an extra round on Monday before everyone else showed up) rehearsals, we needed that conductor.
For a pop concert, e.g. if Tony Bennett wanted orchestral backup (groups tend not to travel with their own orchestra), we would usually just have one rehearsal, then dinner, then the concert.

If you listen to recordings really closely, you can often hear mistakes, too - the percussion will race, the violins will miss a beat. Little corrections are taking place throughout.

I played 2nd violin in an orchestra with 100 members who performed Mozart’s “Requiem” along with 100 singers. This was a memorial for 9/11, performed at the 1-year anniversary - orchestras all over the world performed it that day, it was called “The Rolling Requiem”.

Anyway - it’s a well-known piece, we’d rehearsed it many times, and it’s Mozart – with the way his music is written, he’s pretty clear what he wants. We all knew how it was supposed to sound.

We performed at the Rockefeller Chapel at the U of Chicago to an audience of 1,200. The evening was somber, we played a couple of short pieces and a local TV anchor spoke a little bit.

And at end of the first movement of Mozart’s “Requiem”, like 8 minutes into the piece, there’s the pause between movements. And in the emptiness of that pause, the sound of our playing had filled the building and was echoing back from the chapel. With the vibe from the audience and the intensity of the day – it was ethereal. Other-worldly. Overwhelmingly powerful.

Our conductor forgot where he was. I think he forgot THAT he was. He forgot to conduct the beginning of the second movement - for the first 4 notes, we were on our own. I have a recording of that concert and it’s wild, listening to us all scrambling to play together. The trumpets pulled it out first, he followed them and we all caught up after a few measures.

It’s a memory that I cherish :slight_smile:

Here’s what baffles me: When the conductor conducts AHEAD of what’s going on. I just can’t wrap my head around that one. Apparently, it’s typical, though. Anyone?

I sing in choirs, and the conductor is absolutely necessary. I won’t repeat what was said above, but my personal experience is that you can’t always hear yourself or each other all that well. It is easy to lose track of the beat when you can’t hear yourself. Why do you think musical groups have on-stage monitor speakers aimed back at them. A choir or orchestra has no such monitors. We rely on the conductor to keep us together. And yes, even though you’re looking at your music, you see the conductor with your peripheral vision.

Well, when you’ve been playing in the same orchestra for 20 years, you know your colleagues quite well, so the conductor is less for the actual time-keeping than shaping the overall artistic vision of the piece. If he wants to slow down, he sort of has to signify that a little in advance, so everyone can follow. Also, some instruments have a slight lag - if the conductor just stabbed in the air, not everybody would be able to follow instantly. So it makes sense for the conductor to sort of be ahead of the orchestra for about a quarter second and trust that they will play together nonetheless.

Moved to Cafe Society from GQ.

General Questions Moderator

So, would a railroad conductor’s skills carry over enough to also work an orchestra?

  1. I think what you’re referring to is “up beats” vs. “down beats,” right? People assume that the down beats are the actual beats, but they’re not. When the conductor is stabbing his baton upward (where everyone can see it), that’s the beat. If you don’t realize this, it looks like everyone is half a beat off.

  2. There’s also the problem of communication taking time. The conductor tells his baton to do something, the baton does it, the musicians notice it, then they act on it. By this time they’re coming in late, so the conductor has to anticipate everything.

  3. But of course every conductor is different, so this may not always apply.

Only if they’re recording on multiple tracks.

(I’ll be here all week.)