What does a Conductor Do?
3 Steps to Conducting an Orchestra
This blog post is also available as a podcast. Listen for extra elaboration and examples from FCS Assistant Conductor Jeremy Cuebas.
Okay, you caught me. I lied. You need to know a lot more than these 3 steps before you’re ready to conduct an orchestra. But I hope that this guide will help you understand a bit better how we prepare for a symphony concert.
We conductors get asked what they do all the time. It’s a tough question to answer because conductors do so many things, both on and off the podium. In fact, the role of the conductor is always evolving. How we think of a conductor now didn’t develop until the early 20th century, long after Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach had passed.
There are a lot of duties that the conductor has besides conducting, like all the work that Music Director Wes Kenney does before the week of a concert, but in this article, we will only look at what a conductor does while they are conducting an ensemble.
So, to break down what a conductor does on the podium, we’re going to look at 3 different levels, starting from the simplest and moving to the more advanced. This will help us understand what a conductor does.
The conductor acts as a time-beater, a teacher, and an artistic leader.
The first level is the time-beater. Here, the conductor tells the musicians when to start and how fast to go. The 2nd level is the teacher, where the conductor rehearses the musicians to make sure that all the music is working well. Finally, the 3rd level is the artistic leader. This is when the conductor makes decisions as a creative musician and leader. Level 3 is where we conductors really get to shine.
Conductors do all of these jobs simultaneously in rehearsals and during a concert, but they get more complex and important as we layer them together. Let’s start with the basics.
Level 1: The Time-Beater
The most basic thing that a conductor does is to show the orchestra when to start and how fast to go. While the conductor does show other things while conducting, like the meter, dynamics, character, or articulation of the music, once an orchestra gets started it can pretty much keep playing even if the conductor decides to walk off the stage.
It’s important to understand that an orchestra can play without a conductor. This is especially true for a professional orchestra, but even a middle or high school orchestra doesn’t need a conductor as long as the music isn’t too difficult or complicated. Once the conductor sets the tempo, the orchestra can mostly continue on by themselves.
If there are changes in tempo, stops and starts in the music, or if the orchestra accidentally slows down or speeds up, the conductor will need to step in again to fix the tempo. And that brings us to the next level.
Level 2: The Teacher
What happens when something goes wrong? And something always will go wrong! Orchestras don’t just get together for the first time and play a concert. They have rehearsals first.
To learn new or difficult music, the conductor must act as a teacher. At level 2, the orchestra is not just playing the music, but actually preparing it for a concert. The conductor will have only a few rehearsals to make sure everything is put together correctly.
Think of this like the orchestra’s practice time. Just as a piano student practices to teach their hands how to play a song well, so a conductor “practices” the orchestra to teach them how to play the music well.
When something goes wrong, it’s the conductor’s job to fix it. And many things can go wrong in rehearsal. Here are just a few possibilities:
- The flutes come in early
- The trumpets play out of tune
- The percussion is too loud
- The violins aren’t playing together
So, how does a conductor fix things? The conductor is the only person with the score. The score is a book with everybody’s parts in it, and this is why conductors are so crucial when an orchestra rehearses. A cellist will have the cello music in front of them, but they can’t see what the flutes or the violins should be playing.
With the score and a knowledge of how the music should go, the conductor teaches the music to the orchestra in rehearsals so that they’re ready to play it together for the concert.
But what do we do when the orchestra can play all the music correctly? Then we move to the final level.
Level 3: The Artistic Leader
Level 3 is the most important function of the conductor. This is where the they get to be an artist.
Through hours of deep and intense study, a conductor will learn the music and make interpretive decisions about how it should be played to create the most sublime experience for the orchestra and the audience.
Each piece of music has nearly infinite decisions that have to be made about it, no matter how simple or complex it is. The composer always gives us the notes and rhythms, and they usually give us the dynamics (changes in volume), but many other things are left up to the performers, such as:
- The tempo, or speed, of the music and how it changes: How fast is “fast?” (Allegro)
- The character of different sections and how the orchestra plays that character: What does “fast, with fire” mean, or “Allegro con brio” in Beethoven’s famous 5th Symphony.
- The subtleties in volume across dozens of musicians: Does “loud” (forte) mean the same thing to a violinist as it does to a trumpet player?
- The pacing of tension and release through a piece: What’s the loudest part of this 50 minute symphony? What’s the quietest?
These are the sorts of decisions that a conductor must investigate while preparing to conduct a piece. Then, through words and physical gestures in rehearsal and performance, the conductor communicates their decisions to the orchestra. In rehearsal, the conductor “teaches” their vision of the music to the orchestra. On the podium, the conductor shows the orchestra subtleties of character and nuances of articulation and tempo changes.
Much like painting a picture, the conductor begins with a vision and then executes their craft to make it real. The orchestra can play without them, but every orchestra member will play it differently.
A conductor brings a unified vision to the music.
The conductor beats time and prepares the musicians in rehearsal, but most importantly the conductor considers every aspect of the music and how to make it as inspiring and incredible as possible. Then they work with the orchestra to make that vision come alive.
These 3 steps are just the beginning of the conductor’s role, but hopefully understanding these 3 levels will help you appreciate what goes into preparing a symphony concert.
Jeremy D. Cuebas,
Fort Collins Symphony
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