What’s the Conductor’s role? (Hint: It has nothing to do with trains!)

November 12, 2010 at 7:58 am | Posted in Conducting, Humor | Leave a comment
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I’m currently working on my Masters in Conducting at Butler  University. When people ask my wife what I’m going to school for, and she tells them “conducting” they almost always reply back something about “Like Leopold on Bugs Bunny?”

It’s interesting how non-musicians interpret what the role of the conductor is. For a large majority, they believe conductors simply wave their arms around until the music stop. Indeed, who hasn’t seen some comic in the paper about conductors?

Train Conductor
(Not a music conductor!)


A conductor does not simply wave their arms and wait for the music to stop. In fact, a conductor’s role in music is much more involved than many people may believe. Here are some different roles a conductor serves:

1) Interpretation: A conductor must study the score, the instruments, the rhythms, the dynamics, tempi, style, and many other elements, and codify an interpretation from this.  Ten different conductors can conduct Mahler 5 ten different ways. Why? Because they each have their own experiences, their own view of what to bring out, and even how they hear things.

2) Show the music: A conductor should be a visual representation of what style of music is being played. If it is a legato passage, the conductor should show smooth, horizontal motion. In a more dettached or pesante section, a heavy style should be displayed, etc. The conductor should be using their conducting to show the ensemble how they want the music to sound, whether it’s loud/soft, staccato/legato, fast/slow, etc.

3) Facilitator: Some conductors believe that they, contrary to what I typed earlier, do not in fact interpret the music. Rather, they follow the markings by the conductor exactly to perform the music “as the composer intended”. In this school of thought, they serve more as a facilitator, guiding the ensemble to the correct “version” as the composer has indicated.

4) Time beater: Yes, some people think the conductor should be a metronome. Their purpose is to keep time. This is especially prevalent in wind band music. Orchestra conductors tend to conduct emotion of a piece, and choral conductors tend to conduct the rhythms of the words. Wind band conductors have gotten into a bad habit of conducting time. Yes, I think it’s important for the ensemble to have tempo and have it presented in a well-organized form (i.e. patterns). However, too few band conductors actually conduct the music short of the left hand crescendo/decrescendo ala The Karate Kid.



So, which of these is a conductor’s role? Ultimately, all of the above. It’s the job of the conductor to know the music, and develop their own interpretation of the music that is based on their experiences. This is part of music-making that is so amazing! How I view Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral is not the same as somone who is older, younger, less experienced, more experienced, etc. They are also responsible for showing how the music sounds with their baton technique, showing tempi, and at times, being a facilitator (chamber music is a great example!)

Next time you find out someone is a conductor, don’t make the obligatory “move your hands” joke. Instead, ask them about their interpretation of a piece they are conducting and you will learn so much!


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