What does an orchestra conductor do?

Ok, I admit I’m a Philistine. I know little about performing music of any kind, and even less about symphonic music. But I’ve never understood just what the conductor does, and why he’s considered so important in an orchestra, overshadowing, it seems, the actually musicians who are actually producing the music. In other types of music, like rock, jazz, bluegrass, etc., there is no conductor and yet all the musicians are able to keep tempo and play together properly. Is it just that symphonic orchestras have more musicians than these other types of bands? I find it hard to believe that professional classical musicians, the cream of the crop, couldn’t play a piece properly without a guy waving a stick at them. He must be doing something other than just keeping time; otherwise he could be replaced by a metronome. What’s the dope?

A few previous threads:

Thanks! I did search before posting but I guess I didn’t look back far enough.

You’re welcome - FYI I find you often get better results searching this forum (and many other sites) using Google rather than the site search tool - syntax is “site:boards.straightdope.com orchestra conductor”

The threads linked have good information but allow me to net it out:

The conductor’s job is not just to walk up and wave the baton. The orchestra could play perfectly well with no conductor at all standing up there. The conductor provides artistic direction and his work starts long before the performance. He treats the musicians like paint on his pallette to create his artistic interpretation of a piece. If he rehearsed the orchestra, that work would be evident even if he weren’t there to lead the performance.

Not true for a shit-ton of 20th and 21st century repertory.

Basically, the conductor is the musician, interpreting the sheet music and deciding how to play it. The whole orchestra is his/her instrument; their job is to play exactly the way the conductor tells them to play.

I don’t know if this is in the other threads, so I’m giving it here. It answers your question.

Leonard Bernstein - The Art of Conducting (1950s, 46 minutes) https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x1dn3at

If the low video quality bothers you, you might be able to get the DVD through your local library. All of Bernstein’s programs are meant for general audiences, and they’re good.

Simon Rattle conducts 6 Berlin school orchestras: Conductor Simon Rattle, then with the Berlin Philharmonic, guides six school orchestras (whom he’s never met before) through a performance of “In the Hall of the Mountain King”. At the start, they are competent, in that they all the right notes in the right order. But as the maestro put it:

Watch as he coaxes his interpretation of the piece out of the young people. It could be a simple matter as telling the bassoons not to play so loudly. Less cello, more double bass. Don’t speed up during a crescendo. Actually speed up during the end. Play more menacingly. Play more maniacally. In the end he gets a pretty good performance out of them.

Interpretation Class: Beethoven - Symphony No. 5, Mvt. 1: Benjamin Zander of the Boston Philharmonic guides a student conductor. Now it’s an experienced conductor teaching a student through the nuances of conducting an orchestra, away from just setting tempo. I don’t know how much the student conductor got out of it, as he’s stiff as a board, but it’s fascinating to see and hear the musicians respond to the different conductors.

When I worked at the BBC I was lucky enough to be given the baton so I could have a go at conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Although I can play a bit of guitar and bass guitar I had no right to be up there, I had never done it before, had received no training (expect being shown briefly by the real conductor how to move my arms) and have only attended about three of four classical concerts in my life. A complete novice.

The reason I got the chance was merely just to experience it and have a bit of fun. We did the Simpsons theme tune.

What struck was how responsive the orchestra was to me. They played it faultlessly of course but the speed they went at was precisely in my hands. It was as if I could play a vinyl record and slow and speed it up at will without affecting the pitch. I have so much respect for the talent of those musicians. No doubt, had I been able to, I could have asked certain sections to play with more volume or urgency. Yes the orchestra could have played it without me but you could probably also make a short film without a director if you hire the right people. It wouldn’t be as good though.

I have conducted high school and college bands, a youth orchestra, and choruses (choirs). The conducting is part of the collaboration with the ensemble musicians. When the ensemble musicians and conductor work together it’s all a performance. It can be magic, or it can be tragic. No matter what, it’s more than waving a stick; the baton is just another instrument in the ensemble. I once conducted a high school band with a carpenter’s hammer.

That’s just my experience, and my opinion.

Don’t forget, the conductor is the only person on the stage who can see what everybody else is supposed to be doing at any given point: s/he has the full score, they just have their own parts.

Plus, the bulk of the conductor’s job is in the rehearsal room; in the performance, s/he is cueing in and out what’s already been rehearsed and planned, rather than making it up as they go along.

And for the regular conductor-in-chief or staff rather than visiting conductor, there’ll be a whole load of other work - planning programmes, joining in the management of the orchestra (selecting new players, planning tours), a whole lot of educational/outreach activities, and so on, as well as a more nebulous business of developing a particular longterm culture and style/sound of performance.

“Sheet music” is not the word–although it could be–for the stuff that a conductor (usually) or the players read. The written copy of a work as a whole is the “score”; for the players, “parts.”

Also FTR, seems like another lifetime but former professional, conservatory trained conductor here.

Moderator Action

Moving thread from GQ to Cafe Society.

In addition to the info in other posts, let me add this. I’ve been in lots of choirs and choruses, and if the group is big enough, sometimes you can’t hear each other. So you DO need someone that everyone can see to make sure you stay together. That’s all. Carry on.

It’s also worth noting that while there doesn’t appear to be a conductor in a rock band, there usually is. It’s just not as obvious.

Watch Bruce Springsteen get the whole E street band to come off a chord simultaneously by raising the neck of his guitar, looking round, and then bringing it down. The neck is his baton.

Watch Rick Wakeman do the big keyboard solo in Awaken and you’ll see him give a clear signal with his head to the rest of the band that says “right lads, solo over, come back in… 1…2…3… now”.

Watch Elvis in this clip from this point. He’s not just using his arms and body to interpret the music, he’s conducting the band. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QygssHD2IKA

I suppose I did overstate the point.

I think Scougs nin’ja’ed me … but I think more can be said …

Take bands like Hot Tuna or ZZ Top, it’s just three guys playing so hitting that bridge together isn’t all that hard … the bigger bands like The Mothers of Invention or The Grateful Dead do indeed have one person cluing in the rest of the band, with a nod of the head or chord struck, “this is the last coda” … so with a full symphony orchestra we have 100 or more people, it makes sense to have someone dedicated to all these tasks …

The conductor has quite a bit of latitude within the written score … if the score calls for mezzo piano but she wants the bassoons to come in at fortissimo, she’ll wave her hand up at that section, “play loud you bastards” … so we get multiple interpretations of the same score across both people and time … what folks want to hear in the late 19th Century may be different from what folks want to hear in the early 21st Century …

As someone who’s seen the Grateful Dead over a hundred times and other similar rock bands hundreds of more times, I take minor exception to this. It’s true that a band member might cue the others when a significant transition will occur – when we leave the jam and go back to the chorus, or when we’re ready to move from Slipknot to Franklin’s Tower, etc. But this happens a few times per song. No one is marking every single beat the way a symphony conductor does. Also it’s not the same person doing it through the whole song. In a band with two lead guitarists for example, whoever is leading at the moment would be the one to cue the transition. So I don’t view this as very similar to a conductor.

Part of the job of a record’s producer is precisely to direct the ensemble the way a conductor does: timing, volume, emphasis. A small group can use a friend, or recordings, to check how they sound; those who don’t tend IME to sound as a fight between crack-addled cats, because the sound the players get and that an audience will hear can be quite different. I’ve been in contests for new groups where the immense majority suffered from the same defect: each musician (this includes the singers) kept trying to get louder and louder. That works well if you’re trying to make a lot of noise; not so well if you’re trying to make music.

Oh, but they are! It’s called the “rhythm section”. Most commonly it’s a percussionist, such as a drummer; in some genres (such as bluegrass), it’s the bassist’s.

You’re reminding me of an interview I heard once, with a Brazilian percussionist who’d “been very surprised to discover that flamenco doesn’t include percussion” (sic). Yes it does: palms, box, guitar (when palmed), shoes, castanets… he thought “percussion” meant only “drums”. You’re thinking “directing” must require “visual gestures”. It’s a vocabulary problem, really.