Many an audience member has sat befuddled in an orchestra concert watching the conductor flailing his or her arms around, sometimes without any foreseeable connection to the music. This person is often seen as a character of dubious importance by many audience members. Some conduct in such a minimal way that it seems the orchestra could simply play without them – indeed, some ensembles, such as the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, don’t even have a conductor! After all, what kind of musician makes no sound at all in concert? Didn’t Honda build a robot that briefly conducted the Detroit Symphony? Wasn’t Shaquille O’Neal invited to stand up and conduct the Boston Pops one time? Certainly, the profession of conducting is one of the least understood in the world of music. Few outside professional orchestras understand exactly what a conductor does and how someone might become one. What then, is the purpose of these characters, and where do they come from? In order to understand this mysterious profession and what its members do, we must look at its origins and the way the concept of a conductor has changed over the years.
It may come as a surprise to a male-dominated profession that the first documented individual to specifically act as a conductor was a woman, a nun directing a choir of a convent in the middle ages. In the 16th century, instrumental ensembles were generally led by the first violinist or harpsichordist, who would move their body in the rhythm of the music or direction of a phrase. Composers would often perform their music with the ensemble as soloists or at the harpsichord providing continuo. Bach was known to wave a rolled-up manuscript when directing singers and players, and the first batons made their appearance as giant staffs that were pounded on the ground. One such master (“maestro”) of the staff was Jean-Baptiste Lully, the court composer and music director of Louis the XIV. A true counterpart to the Sun King, Lully was a proponent of the “divine right” of rulers and extended this authoritarian perspective to conducting. One of the first of a very long line of autocrats characteristic of the profession’s professions despotic tendencies that lasted until the 20th century, he ruled his musicians with an iron fist until he accidentally stabbed himself in the foot with his staff and died of gangrene in 1687. The first conductors to achieve widespread fame were composers, notably Wagner, Mahler, and Strauss. With the advent of the Romantic era, the size and complexity of orchestral and operatic music increased dramatically, and a dedicated conductor became a necessity in order to ensure an orchestra played correct notes and rhythms together with a unified musical concept. The Romantic era saw the widespread use of a wand-like wooden baton, and the first actual instruction of young conductors with the apprentice system. In those days (and still to some extent in Europe), young apprentice conductors were generally composers themselves, or piano accompanists for opera companies called répétiteurs. Others were highly regarded concert soloists. Though many books were written on the philosophy and procedure of conducting, actual formal instruction of young conductors was a nebulous concept, and lagged behind the virtuoso training of instrumentalists and singers at music academies across the world. Only recently, in the latter half of the 20th century, has the instruction of young conductors at institutions of higher learning become an important part of the profession. Students of conducting in the modern era come from an instrumental or vocal background, and must pass rigorous tests before being accepted to a highly demanding course of study. The result has been a dramatic increase in the technique and practical competency of conductors in the modern era. This is especially exemplified by the younger members of the profession, as evidenced by the recent successes of relatively young conductors in Philadelphia, Houston, Los Angeles, and Seattle. Still, professional musicians’ generally negative opinions toward conductors reflect a profession that has been damaged by the false idea that conducting ability is an innate trait rather than a skill learned with intense formal training. The notion that any talented musician such as a soloist or leading orchestral member could successfully conduct without any prior instruction or basic experience is becoming less prominent today, and conductors are becoming increasingly successful in tackling the myriad of challenges they face in putting together an orchestral performance.
Asking five different musicians what a conductor actually does would likely produce five different answers; asking them how a conductor is trained would likely produce no answers at all. When training young instrumentalists (violin, clarinet, etc.), different teachers take a myriad of different approaches but aim to achieve the same goals of good standard technique (i.e. correct bow hold and fingering positions on the violin, and correct tonguing and fingering on the clarinet). However, beyond the simple idea of a beat pattern, where a conductor moves his baton or hand in specific directions to show the different beats of a measure, there is no standardized technique of conducting. Thus, conducting is the most subjective of all musical arts, and is very difficult to teach. It is generally deemed, however, even from the earliest days of the profession, that a conductor must possess certain traits in order to prepare and conduct a successful performance: a complete knowledge of the musical score, a highly trained ear, strong keyboard ability, a wide-ranging knowledge of the existing repertoire, basic facility in multiple languages, a knowledge of string techniques and the requirements of other orchestral instruments, strong and specific musical intentions, and the ability to convey these musical intentions to the orchestra through clear physical gestures in order to present a polished, musically unified performance. In the earliest days less than this was enough; however, the modern maestro of the 21st century faces additional challenges. A music director’s job now requires sharp social skills: he or she must have the ability to woo a room of possible donors in order to assist the Board of Directors in sustaining the orchestra’s fragile annual fund. He or she is more involved with the business aspects of music in the modern era and increasingly, a music director must not only lead with programming decisions – he must innovate new initiatives utilizing technology and educational outreach. He must understand the complex psychology and sensitive personalities of each of the virtuosic, highly trained instrumental sections of his orchestra in order to help them work together in harmony. Gone are the days of tyrannical despots on the podium dictating self-indulgent “interpretations” of the repertoire to their orchestral subjects; successful modern conductors have adopted a more collaborative attitude, letting the musicians play and working politely and unobtrusively in rehearsal to facilitate their finest performance.
What audiences see of a conductor in performance is the result of many years of intense study, skilled practice, mentorship, and personal preparation. In a performance, a conductor does not merely wave his or her arms, causing sound like a technician pushing buttons – his or her motions are the visual representation of a close connection with every member of the orchestra and the composer’s intentions in the score, drawing the audience into a shared experience of an art form that is mystical and powerful. A conductor’s success is the orchestra’s success, the composer’s success, and the audience’s success as well. Musicians and audience members alike can agree that when such a strong personal connection is made with great music, there is no substitute.
Geoffrey Larson is the Music Director of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra.