What a Conductor Actually Does on Stage: Two Short Videos Explain the Little-Understood Art

When we imag­ine a sym­pho­ny orches­tra, even those of us oth­er­wise unfa­mil­iar with clas­si­cal music imag­ine a con­duc­tor stand­ing up front. We know the con­duc­tor leads the orches­tra, but how exact­ly does he/she do it? “What the pub­lic needs to under­stand about con­duct­ing is that it’s an antic­i­pa­to­ry art,” says con­duc­tor James Gaffi­gan in the short Vox explain­er video above. “What we do takes place before the music hap­pens,” all of it meant “to do jus­tice to the com­pos­er.” He then breaks down the func­tion of the main tools avail­able to the con­duc­tor to do that: the right hand, which holds the baton, and the left hand, which “has a much more com­pli­cat­ed, strange role in our phys­i­cal world.”

Clear­ly some aspects of con­duct­ing aren’t so eas­i­ly explained. Hence the beau­ty of con­duct­ing as an art form, which encom­pass­es exem­plars as dif­fer­ent as Gus­tav Mahler, rep­re­sent­ed in his day by car­i­ca­tures “mak­ing crazy ges­tures” and “jump­ing up and down on the podi­um,” and Mahler’s con­tem­po­rary Richard Strauss, who con­duct­ed by “bare­ly mov­ing.”

Gaffi­gan also brings in the exam­ple of Leonard Bern­stein, the best-known con­duc­tor of the 20th cen­tu­ry in the West, who in record­ings of his per­for­mances is “always danc­ing,” who “can’t help mov­ing around the podi­um, and his rhythm is con­ta­gious.” (But as Open Cul­ture read­ers know, Bern­stein could also con­duct with only his eye­brows.)

You can hear, and see, anoth­er per­spec­tive on what a con­duc­tor does in the New York Times video just above. “There’s no way to real­ly put your fin­ger on what makes con­duct­ing great, even what makes con­duct­ing work,” says New York Phil­har­mon­ic direc­tor Alan Gilbert. Gilbert pro­vides sev­er­al exam­ples of the tech­niques he uses while con­duct­ing not just to tell which musi­cians to start play­ing when, but to imbue their col­lec­tive per­for­mance with just the desired tex­tures and nuances and bring out all the lay­ers of the music and the rela­tion­ship between them. All the while, the con­duc­tor must remain in con­stant com­mu­ni­ca­tion: some­times with all the play­ers at once, some­times with just one sec­tion, and some­times with just one indi­vid­ual.

“There are some con­duc­tors who look as if they’re incred­i­bly well put togeth­er, and phys­i­cal­ly all in order,” Gilbert says. “That does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean that you’ll hear inspired music-mak­ing. There will be some con­duc­tors whose tech­nique is osten­si­bly all over the place, not nec­es­sar­i­ly so clear, but some­thing comes across, and it can even be extreme­ly pre­cise.” A con­duc­tor can have all man­ner of ideas about how the orches­tra should play, but with­out the faith of the musi­cians, none of those ideas can take musi­cal form. “One of the ways to make your sound bet­ter is to make it real­ly obvi­ous that you’re real­ly lis­ten­ing, and that it real­ly mat­ters to you what it sounds like. That’s not actu­al­ly con­duct­ing; that’s embody­ing or rep­re­sent­ing an aspi­ra­tion.” Con­duc­tors, in oth­er words, must be the music they wish to hear.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Move­ments of a Sym­pho­ny Con­duc­tor Get Artis­ti­cal­ly Visu­al­ized in an Avant-Garde Motion Cap­ture Ani­ma­tion

Watch 82-Year-Old Igor Stravin­sky Con­duct The Fire­bird, the Bal­let Mas­ter­piece That First Made Him Famous (1965)

What Hap­pens When Every­day Peo­ple Get a Chance to Con­duct a World-Class Orches­tra

Watch Leonard Bern­stein Con­duct the Vien­na Phil­har­mon­ic Using Only His Eye­brows

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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