Image Credit: Andrea Zanenga
Do orchestras need conductors? The musicians all seem to be capable of playing perfectly well by themselves.
Watching an orchestra perform at a concert you might be forgiven for thinking, does a conductor actually do anything? All the musicians have sheet music in front of them, so what’s the point in someone standing at the front of the stage, back to the audience, waving a stick?
That orchestra conductor stick, incidentally, is called a baton. The baton is an extension of the arm so the conductor doesn’t need to wave their arms around. Saying that, plenty of conductors don’t use a baton at all.
So, what’s the point of having a conductor of classical music?
Conductors keep the beat
The orchestral conductor is traditionally there to help the musicians stay in time to the pulse of the music. Back in the day – even from 700 BC – a conductor would bang a staff on the ground to keep a group of musicians in time.
The conductor also makes sure everyone starts at the same time at the very beginning. For example, in large orchestras, there’s a fair distance between the far edges of the orchestra and a musician might struggle to hear their counterpart on the other side.
A conductor also gives the musicians extra reassurance. The orchestral score with every instrumental part sits in front of them, so they can guide the orchestra just in case the musicians forget any part of the piece, however small.
Some players might have long stretches of rests in the middle of the piece where they don’t play – the conductor helps them know when they come back in, in case anyone’s got lost trying to keep count.
Musical interpretation is everything
It’s not just about keeping time – the conductor is there to convey all the emotion of the piece of music through gestures and facial expressions.
A conductor’s right hand keeps the rhythm, with different movements for different time signatures. Meanwhile the left hand is expressive, showing the length of a musical phrase or how fast a violinist’s bow should move, making sweeping gestures to coax the musicians into playing with certain emotions.
An orchestra should be in perfect unison, and the conductor ensures that everyone is following the same interpretation of the piece of music. Each individual instrumentalist will have a different idea of how they reckon the composition should sound. But they’re not soloists, they’re part of the orchestra – so they must follow the conductor’s interpretation of the music.
A score might say a section should be fast and energetic, or slow and elegant, but exactly how fast or slow is up to the conductor. One piece of music fronted by two different conductors will sound different.
The music teacher for the orchestra
The conductor also teaches the orchestra new pieces of music. Walking onto the stage to applause is the conductor’s chance to be rewarded for the hours of tutoring and admin that goes behind being a musical director.
Fancy becoming a musical director? If you’re a classical composer, we’ve gathered the 10 best orchestral VSTs so you can write for the whole orchestra without leaving your home studio.